- Herndon on Lincoln: Lettersby William H. Herndon
After Abraham Lincoln's death, his former law partner, William H. Herndon, became convinced of his "duty to state to all Peoples my ideas of Lincoln and my knowledge of the facts of his life so far as I know them" (p. 190). Herndon interviewed many of Lincoln's contemporaries in Illinois, essentially conducting an oral history project. Herndon's notes and letters have become a valuable resource for scholars, as this collection forms most of what we know about Lincoln's early years.
This is the third Herndon-related book edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, codirectors of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, and published by the University of Illinois Press. They previously published the essential documentary collection, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln(Urbana, 1998); later, they published a splendid edition of Herndon's Lincoln(Urbana, 2006). Wilson and Davis are planning a second volume of Herndon on Lincoln, which will collect Herndon's lectures about Lincoln.
This volume is not a complete edition of Herndon's letters. Herndon was an indefatigable correspondent, and this collection includes only those portions of letters that concern Lincoln. That choice is understandable as Herndon's importance is tied to his association with Lincoln. At one point Herndon warns his collaborator in amassing his Lincoln archive, Jesse W. Weik, "You must expect some repetition," and, at times, Herndon proves himself correct (p. 187). Despite the repetition, the letters are quite enjoyable to read. [End Page 423]
The book provides many benefits for Lincoln scholars, including making these valuable materials much more accessible. Herndon's handwriting is extremely difficult to decipher, and Wilson and Davis have done a great service in transcribing these letters. This collection is much more complete and more accurate than its feeble predecessor, Emmanuel Hertz's The Hidden Lincoln, from the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon(New York, 1938). The editors provide helpful annotations. Also, as Wilson and Davis note, the letters disclose and discuss many things about Lincoln that never made it into Herndon's lectures or published writings. For example, Herndon wrote that Lincoln was "so blinded to his children's faults" that "[h]ad they s——tin Lincoln's hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart" (p. 237).
Many of the letters were addressed to Jesse W. Weik, who selected from the letters and materials provided by Herndon to write Herndon's Lincoln. Many of Herndon's statements found their way into the biography, such as Lincoln having "the avarice of the Keep" but not the "avarice of the get" (p. 158). Other material provided by Herndon was shaped or ignored by Weik. For example, Herndon wrote Weik that "Lincoln never read much law—and never did I see him read a law book through and no one Else Ever did" (p. 238). In Herndon's Lincoln, that line appeared as "In fact, I may truthfully say, I never knew him to read through a law book of any kind," which, of course, changes Herndon's point (Wilson and Davis, eds., Herndon's Lincoln, 209–10).
Because of the editors' great command of all things Herndon, I wish this volume had provided cross-references to Herndon's Lincoln. Wilson and Davis provide cross-references to the material in Herndon's letters to Lincoln biographer Josiah Holland that was used in Holland's biography. Similar references to Herndon's Lincolnwould have been very helpful.
I agree with Wilson and Davis's conclusion that Herndon's "overall contribution to the study of Abraham Lincoln far exceeds that of any other and remains indispensable" (p. xx). While Herndon believed that Lincoln was "very difficult to understand," his writings aid in our knowing Lincoln (p. 183). This edition of letters, along with the three...