McPherson's "Abraham Lincoln" (part 1 of 2)

I read James McPherson's Abraham Lincoln this weekend over lunch between the first and fifth bites of a sandwich. The narrative runs 65 pages and the pages are five inches wide by eight tall (with plenty of ledding and white space to bulk it up to 6/10th-of-an-inch thickness).

Notice how few reviews this has gotten. The biggest plug so far has been a line or two in an omnibus roundup from William Safire, a Lincoln buff, in the NYT. The second biggest review - also a few lines in an omnibus - appeared in the Minneapolis Strib written in that tone we have come to expect:
McPherson, our greatest living Civil War historian, has written a clear-headed narrative ... brilliant assessments ... A superb bibliography ... lucid and balanced...
The next level down we find the Grand Forks daily paper after which the trail fades.

You could argue that reviewers have finally caught on to McPherson's instabooks issued on anniversaries (he cut and pasted his way up to Antietam, Gettysburg, and now Lincoln commemorations). This would be just but is not likely the cause of the quiet. Reviewers are too lazy to look into matters that "deeply."

At issue is that reviewers don't know what to do with a 65-page hardcover narrative printed on tiny pages. I think this is the crux together with something I noticed in the reviews for his last book, that McPherson reviewers now represent an assortment of casual labor hacks assigned by their book editors - people not informed enough to give McPherson more praise than what already appears on his press releases.

The result, this paucity of reviews, if it is caused by the brevity of Abraham Lincoln, is a missed opportunity. Not understanding exactly who he is or what he is, people mistake McPherson if they think Abraham Lincoln is a lapse of some sort.

Abraham Lincoln is intended as a powerful display of McPherson at the peak of his powers of synthesis. Whatever quick buck the author envisioned earning in the timing of this release, this is a demonstration of technique: 65 pages of Lincoln and done. I'm outta here. High five me.

The people generally impressed by McPherson ("greatest living historian," "scholar") have little idea that he is a synthesizer of other people's scholarship. To see him acting out this way - acting out his own conception of himself on a monumental (and yet micro) scale - is very confusing for people who imagine that McPherson is a hardy researcher developing original insights and putting them into clear English.

Abraham Lincoln tells us that McPherson knows who he is, what he does, and that bears no connection to his fans' conception of him.

The book also tells us just what kind of a synthesizer McPherson is, which we will develop into the next part of this series.

Photo: USA Today