Reading with Lincoln (review)
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Reading with Lincoln. By Robert Bray. (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 261. $29.95 cloth)

Many biographers and scholars have discussed the reading habits of Abraham Lincoln, but Robert Bray, in Reading with Lincoln, has devoted an entire book solely to this fascinating subject. Bray begins by summarizing the very limited formal education that Lincoln received as a frontier child during the early decades of the nineteenth century—perhaps two months of schooling in his native Kentucky and a year or less attendance at Indiana "blab" schools. Lincoln was essentially self-educated, and Bray analyzes the texts responsible for this amazing self-education, from the English readers and grammar [End Page 219] books of Lincoln's youth through the political treatises and Shakespearean dramas that Lincoln tackled during his adulthood.

Bray, a professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University, brings a literary scholar's skill and sensitivity to his subject. His basic methodology is to provide a detailed analysis of a text that Lincoln likely read and then consider how that work might have influenced Lincoln's political philosophy and his own writing—how Lincoln "assimilated" a text and "made the work in question his own" (p. 162). For example, Bray demonstrates that Edward Gibbon's ideas about the use and abuse of reason in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-87) are "perfectly in accord with Lincoln's perspectives on American society in the Lyceum Address" of 1838 (p. 56). Similarly, Bray suggests that the religious skepticism expressed in the works of Constantin de Volney, Thomas Paine, and Voltaire fueled the religious misgivings of Lincoln's early adulthood. Bray also points out that Lincoln devoured poetry, particularly the poems of Robert Burns and Lord Byron, and that Lincoln "may have been a little shocked to recognize a version of his private self-image in the Byronic hero" (p. 102).

In terms of Lincoln's evolving attitude on slavery, Bray cites the sermons of the abolitionist transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker. Most likely, Lincoln, according to Bray, came across a book of Parker's addresses and sermons in his law office in 1858. From a speech delivered by Parker on July 4, 1858, Lincoln probably lifted a phrase that worked its way into the Gettysburg Address: "Democracy is Direct Self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people" (p. 176). Like Parker, Lincoln came to believe, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision, that "there might even be a conspiracy to nationalize slavery in the United States"—an idea that Lincoln developed in his 1858 "House Divided" speech (p. 181).

In some case, Bray is properly speculative: Did Lincoln move closer to issuing an emancipation decree in the late summer of 1862 after reading Moncure Daniel Conway's The Rejected Stone (1862), [End Page 220] which articulated a call for immediate, unconditional emancipation?

The Lincoln scholar will surely appreciate Bray's analyses of key texts that Lincoln read, but this book might not be one for the casual Lincoln buff who might not wish to digest Bray's detailed exegesis of David Hume's Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). That Lincoln tackled such demanding philosophical texts, however, supports Bray's contention that Lincoln possessed an intellect of the highest order.

Bray's book concludes with a chapter titled "Nothing Equals Macbeth," but perhaps more space could be devoted to the influence of William Shakespeare's great political dramas on Lincoln's speechmaking. Certainly, as Bray suggests, Shakespeare "served as the final existential statement of how he [Lincoln], as a private person, saw the human condition" (p. 189), but Shakespearean cadences and imagery frequently appear in Lincoln's political speeches and writings.

One more minor omission: The jacket cover of Bray's book features Eastman Johnson's painting Boyhood of Lincoln (1868), which depicts Abe as a boy reading by fireside. A book on Lincoln's reading could include a few of the many paintings and photographs of Lincoln pictured holding his favorite prop: a book.

James Tackach

James Tackach, a professor of English at...