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Publisher's Summary

One of the Wall Street Journal's Ten Best Books of the Year

Washington Post Notable Book

A Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2020

Winner of the Gilder Lehrman Abraham Lincoln Prize and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award

"A marvelous cultural biography that captures Lincoln in all his historical fullness...using popular culture in this way, to fill out the context surrounding Lincoln, is what makes Mr. Reynolds's biography so different and so compelling.... Where did the sympathy and compassion expressed in [Lincoln's] Second Inaugural - 'With malice toward none; with charity for all' - come from? This big, wonderful book provides the richest cultural context to explain that, and everything else, about Lincoln." (Gordon Wood, Wall Street Journal)

From one of the great historians of 19th-century America, a revelatory and enthralling new biography of Lincoln, many years in the making, that brings him to life within his turbulent age

David S. Reynolds, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning cultural biography of Walt Whitman and many other iconic works of 19th-century American history, understands the currents in which Abraham Lincoln swam as well as anyone alive. His magisterial biography Abe is the product of full-body immersion into the riotous tumult of American life in the decades before the Civil War.

It was a country growing up and being pulled apart at the same time, with a democratic popular culture that reflected the country's contradictions. Lincoln's lineage was considered auspicious by Emerson, Whitman, and others who prophesied that a new man from the West would emerge to balance North and South. From New England Puritan stock on his father's side and Virginia Cavalier gentry on his mother's, Lincoln was linked by blood to the central conflict of the age. And an enduring theme of his life, Reynolds shows, was his genius for striking a balance between opposing forces. Lacking formal schooling but with an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement, Lincoln had a talent for wrestling and bawdy jokes that made him popular with his peers, even as his appetite for poetry and prodigious gifts for memorization set him apart from them through his childhood, his years as a lawyer, and his entrance into politics.

No one can transcend the limitations of their time, and Lincoln was no exception. But what emerges from Reynolds's masterful reckoning is a man who at each stage in his life managed to arrive at a broader view of things than all but his most enlightened peers. As a politician, he moved too slowly for some and too swiftly for many, but he always pushed toward justice while keeping the whole nation in mind. Abe culminates, of course, in the Civil War, the defining test of Lincoln and his beloved country. Reynolds shows us the extraordinary range of cultural knowledge Lincoln drew from as he shaped a vision of true union, transforming, in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, "the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." 

Abraham Lincoln did not come out of nowhere. But if he was shaped by his times, he also managed at his life's fateful hour to shape them to an extent few could have foreseen. Ultimately, this is the great drama that astonishes us still, and that Abe brings to fresh and vivid life. The measure of that life will always be part of our American education.

©2020 David S. Reynolds (P)2020 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Reynolds’ magisterial biography focuses on the dozens of different influences and experiences that fortuitously coalesced to turn Lincoln into the icon he’s become... Even readers who think they know Lincoln’s life deeply will find new insights here.” (Booklist, starred review)

“Reynolds is one of our most significant historians, and he is up to the enormous task of creating a cultural biography of the man who would become America’s most recognizable president. A fine cultural history and biography that is accessible to all readers ... consistently fun to read.” (Kirkus, starred review)

“Magisterial and authoritative ... Reynolds provides a portrait rich in texture and context, not only of Lincoln but of the America he inhabited and helped redefine. The result is a must-read addition to the canon of Lincoln biographies.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

What listeners say about Abe

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Spectacular research and performance.

A needed supplement to Herbert’s and other authors’ biographies, Reynolds immerses us in the culture and overlooked influences in Lincoln, whose progressive views I hadn’t realized and really amazed me. A wonderful book delivered spectacularly by Nixon, who appropriately conveyed nuances of amusement, sorrow, sarcasm, and disdain, as well as regional accents, and made the text come alive. I was so moved and inspired by this, I’m purchasing a copy of this book for my library, and my reading will no doubt be in Nixon’s voice.

4 people found this helpful

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A Cultural History is not a biography

I have read several biographies on Abraham Lincoln but this book assumes you know the facts of his life. This one does a great job of showing the times and attitudes. I enjoyed it more than I thought. Very well reached and great narration

4 people found this helpful

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confirms K12 teachingbof Great Emancipator

Good, particularly regarding Lincoln's empathy, humor, and determination in extending Constitutional ideals to all Americans. Book suffers by continuously trying to claim Lincoln as a big-gov't liberal rather than the great extender of capitalism that he was. Author continually wraps 19th century slavery advocates in 20th century political labels like "conservative" and "right-wing" without explaining why -- we just have to assume he's a Democrat. Try as we might, liberals never let us exscape their political views as they now claim Lincoln a white supremacists and tear down his statues and remove his name from schools. The author now would debate that, but I suspect he'd succumb to his party and renounce his own writing in a few more years of leftist racial panic.

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Kind of a chore to get through

I’ve read every book I could get my hands on about Lincoln since I was a kid and this book completely excises the personality and humor from the man, which is usually the most fascinating and enjoyable part of reading about him. Ended up being a bit of a chore to get through. I would not in any way recommend this book to any friends who haven’t read many Lincoln books, and for the well seasoned Lincoln readers, I would say it’s easily skipped. The narrator sounds half asleep most of the book, I end up getting drowsy in return anytime I try and get a chunk done. Shocked that I dislike it as much as I do.

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in depth telling

this is a very in depth covering from his birth to depth with a very encompassing look at others thought and actions regarding Lincoln as well as his own to give a greater understanding and why he did all that he did

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Overly long and repetitive

Excellent subject discussion nearly ruined by repetition. Badly in need of an editor!
Despite all that I stayed with it - much was new and interesting. The cultural context is what distinguishes the bio fro others.

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A superb & original exploration of Lincoln's world

Sure to please both the layman and seasoned historian. A deep dive into Lincoln's cultural influences and influence.

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  • AJ
  • 04-06-21

A Masterwork

A most human, thoughtful account of the life and times of the greatest American president. To achieve both professional greatness and deep personal goodness on the level that he did, has never since been rivaled by a POTUS. Notwithstanding his already massive shadow over American history and political culture, Reynolds telling suggests that Lincoln’s life and legacy should loom even larger over our troubled contemporary moment. We should all be so lucky.

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This is THE Lincoln biography to read.

Excellent research behind the writing to put the man and the nation in the context of the time. Great narration also.