- Lincoln in Indiana by Brian R. Dirck
Over the years, brevity has eluded many authors who narrate the life of Abraham Lincoln. Given the nature of the Concise Lincoln Library series and Brian R. Dirck's chosen subject—Lincoln's formative years in Indiana—Lincoln in Indiana is never gratuitously verbose. In fact, Dirck's ability to produce this book despite few relevant sources testifies to his fine historical imagination. Limited to some autobiographical lines penned by Lincoln, who purposefully revealed very little about his upbringing and youth, and the sometimes self-serving interviews that William H. Herndon gathered shortly after the president's assassination, Dirck has constructed an informative account that effectively situates the Lincoln family within their frontier milieu.
Anyone familiar with Abraham Lincoln knows the basic outline of his upbringing. He was born in Kentucky in 1809 and moved to Indiana in his eighth year. There, he was compelled to endure the drudgery of agricultural work while he thirsted for education and self-improvement, and he suffered the loss of his mother and sister. Shortly after turning twenty-one, the age of majority, Lincoln left Indiana and the limited opportunities of his rustic rearing and set out to make something of himself in Illinois. Dirck's careful attention to available sources prohibits him from altering this storyline or adding new details about Lincoln himself, yet by elucidating the context of living in Indiana between 1816 and 1830 Dirck teases nuance out of a well-known tale.
Dirck vividly describes the challenges that settlers faced in the untamed wilds of southern Indiana. Clearing trees and brush to engage in subsistence farming likely never appealed to Lincoln, and the difficulties of making a new life there almost certainly eradicated any Jeffersonian images of a "romantic yeoman farming paradise" (p. 34). Nevertheless, the pluck that Abraham Lincoln's father, Thomas Lincoln, displayed reveals that the family was far from shiftless or stereotypical "'poor white trash'" (p. 63). Thomas Lincoln's "lack of ambition" and bad business choices notwithstanding, he adequately provided for his family and certainly could have fared much worse (p. 68). Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, may have been unable to write and may have fallen short of the ideal of republican motherhood, but both she and Lincoln's stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, encouraged his love of learning. As he matured, Lincoln was shaped by the people, culture, and values of his Hoosier environment, and while he repudiated elements of this background, he never fully escaped it. [End Page 158]
Much about Abraham Lincoln's life in Indiana remains unknown, but Dirck clearly demonstrates that it was more complex than the self-deprecating presidential candidate's own summation: "'The short and simple annals of the poor'" (p. 1). Lincoln scholars should appreciate this succinct overview, and anyone interested in the historian's craft will learn from Dirck's careful handling of sources, lucid writing, and ability to smoothly superimpose Lincoln's story on the broader context of the early republic.