- Lincoln's Sense of Humor by Richard Carwardine
In his latest book, Lincoln's Sense of Humor, Richard Carwardine seeks to rediscover the "authentic richness" and "complexity" of Abraham Lincoln's humor (p. 134). This aspect of Lincoln's life, Carwardine notes, has generally been downplayed in works on the sixteenth president of the United States. Carwardine is no stranger to Lincoln, as this is his fourth book on the subject. Carwardine's new book is timely, joining several recent volumes on Lincoln's humor, such as Todd Nathan Thompson's The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire (Carbondale, Ill., 2015).
Carwardine richly depicts the origins and character of Lincoln's humor. Lincoln's humor was born out of the experience of the frontier, where Lincoln honed the skill of storytelling. This ability was reinforced by an "extraordinarily retentive memory," which allowed Lincoln to summon everything from lowbrow frontier humor to Shakespeare and the Bible (p. 42). But retelling and embellishing the stories he read or heard was not the limit of Lincoln's humor. He also had a special penchant for self-deprecation. Self-mockery of his own physical appearance and demeanor often occupied the center of Lincoln's private and public humor, according to Carwardine. Like Joshua Wolf Shenk in Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Boston, 2005), Carwardine agrees that Lincoln's humor and self-mockery were ways to offset his natural melancholy. In addition, Lincoln's [End Page 448] humor was largely satirical, but Carwardine demonstrates that it was more wide-ranging than some scholars, like Thompson, have shown. Lincoln, too, enjoyed the humor of vulgarity, which reflected not only Lincoln's rural frontier upbringing but also his purposeful attempts to identify with the common man.
Carwardine agrees with other scholars who have noted that Lincoln "applied humor with purpose and for advantage" in his political career (p. 92). Lincoln discovered early in his career that humor could be deployed as a tool to gain influence over others. It is in exploring this theme—the development of Lincoln's public and political uses of humor—that Carwardine's work is strongest. Carwardine shows how, over time, Lincoln's humor evolved, as he increasingly embraced self-restraint in the use of humor. By late 1860, Lincoln understood that the public use of humor could injure not only his own career but also the country.
In the end, Carwardine succeeds in his goal of sketching a complete vision of Lincoln's humor. Relying on biographies of Lincoln, newspapers, and the latest monographs, Carwardine shows the monumental research he has conducted on the sixteenth president. If there is a weakness in the book, it is the vast number of anecdotes, stories, and jokes that overshadow larger historiographical questions concerning Lincoln. In the end, though, Lincoln's Sense of Humor successfully helps the reader gain great insight into the mind of the sixteenth president of the United States.