Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lynn's Caught Lincoln Fever

Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were the preeminent self-made men of their time. In this masterful dual biography, award-winning Harvard University scholar John Stauffer describes the transformations in the lives of these two giants during a major shift in cultural history, when men rejected the status quo and embraced new ideals of personal liberty. As Douglass and Lincoln reinvented themselves and ultimately became friends, they transformed America.

Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than one year of formal schooling, and became the nation's greatest president. Douglass spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling-in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write-and became one of the nation's greatest writers and activists, as well as a spellbinding orator and messenger of audacious hope, the pioneer who blazed the path traveled by future African-American leaders.

At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln invited Douglass into the White House. Lincoln recognized that he needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy and preserve the Union; Douglass realized that Lincoln's shrewd sense of public opinion would serve his own goal of freeing the nation's blacks. Their relationship shifted in response to the country's debate over slavery, abolition, and emancipation.

Both were ambitious men. They had great faith in the moral and technological progress of their nation. And they were not always consistent in their views. John Stauffer describes their personal and political struggles with a keen understanding of the dilemmas Douglass and Lincoln confronted and the social context in which they occurred. What emerges is a brilliant portrait of how two of America's greatest leaders lived.

Lynn says:
"With the recent film, Lincoln and the subsequent flying-off-the-shelves of the book, Team of Rivals, and I guess because of this month's inauguration, I felt I had to get in on the Lincoln craze a little (not to mention delve into some background on Frederick Douglass, whose statue in Denver City Park's MLK memorial cluster springs so easily to mind whenever that period comes up), so I picked up Giants by John Stauffer for my bus reading after a customer was raving about it, and, WOW!... what a wonderful surprise!  This book delves into the trajectories of both lives with a combination of insight and depth that had me returning to the book with the sort of page-turning enthusiasm usually reserved for some kind of action-thriller novel.

One can't help but ponder the parallels also between the 1860's and our contemporary times, comparing the manifestations of violence then and now... the economic disparities then and now... the unique circumstances that form a character of leadership both then and now. Each 'giant' finds his way along his own peculiar path, influenced by differing life-events, but where they converge there is an alchemy of sorts that sparks a lurching forward informed by the arts of compromise that at times cooperate with and other times struggle against more uncompromising principles, resulting in changes that arguably bring about a sea change in this country's character, or at least in its laws.

The lag between human consciousness, and the structural ways human beings manage to shift out of stagnant systemic entrenchment could be said is one underlying thesis of this book, as Stauffer so compellingly draws upon archival material to flesh out the often wrenching stories of these two very human and imperfect, yet unusually passionate and ambitious men and gifted orators, both navigating an historical context of extreme divisiveness, brutality and the moral quandaries of normalized social injustice.  Both dedicated a significant chunk of their tumultuous lives to paving the way for what Lincoln in his 1st inaugural address termed 'the better angels of our nature.'  That dedication made me refer repeatedly to another favorite book on my shelf, Caroline Kennedy's collection of speeches, writings, and transcripts, A Patriot's Handbook, that spans the country's history, and I was reminded again and again of how it is we revisit, progress and regress along the arc of human history and what lessons there are to be learned in revisiting the words and deeds of people,
both famous and obscure, along the way."

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