Monday, May 29, 2006

Team of Rivals

I've been working my way through Doris Kearns Goodwin's massive history of Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet, Team of Rivals, since Christmas. I just finished it today.

I have not been a fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin. I've read her book Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream and listened to her commentary on the PBS American Experience documentary series on the presidents, and in both cases I've been dissatisfied with her psycho-analytical approach to history. In attempting to deduce the complex mixture of emotions and motivations behind particular acts of historical figures, she lapses into speculation (at best) and fiction (at worst), often beginning sentences something like this: "I think he must have felt in that moment that..." This isn't the best approach to history.

In 2002 Goodwin's reputation as a historian was tarnished somewhat when it was revealed that some portions of her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Read about those charges here. Perhaps in order to ensure that no such accusations can be made against her latest book, or perhaps to make a point, the end notes in Rivals run on for more than 120 pages.

In Rivals, Goodwin benefits, I think, from her own remoteness in time from the people and events she chronicles. She is forced to stick close to the original source materials - mainly personal letters, private diaries, transcripts of speeches, newspaper accounts, and government documents - in order to construct the narrative. She keeps her psycho-analytical/speculative tendencies in check for the most part.

The greatness of Lincoln is demonstrated in his humility, kindness, quickness to forgive trespasses and indiscretions, and overall charitable disposition toward even his most vicious foes. He avoids inflamatory or unflattering statements and shows an unwillingness to alienate anyone unnecessarily. The devotion and affection Lincoln inspires in longtime opponents and rivals is a testimony to his lack of guile and eagerness to recognize even the smallest trace of good intent in the misguidedand sometimes malicious behavior of others. We also see the wisdom of Lincoln in his decision-making ability, his eagerness to seek the counsel of his cabinet and other advisors, and his openness to correction when his judgment was off.

Lincoln seems so good that I began to say to myself "Lincoln demonstrates more of the fruit of the Spirit than I do." Goodwin emphasizes Lincoln's disbelief in the Christian view of the afterlife early in the book but later allows that perhaps his religious convictions changed and deepened in the trying years of the Civil War, manifested, perhaps, in his frequent references to and apparent belief in God's sovereign purposes and judgment, and the need to appeal to Him for help in the war. My own impression is that either Lincoln is portrayed as more virtuous than he actually was, he is the best unbelieving man there ever was, or he was in fact a Christian.

I was slightly annoyed by a passage early on in the book in which Goodwin emphasizes that neither the affectionate and openly emotional language of letters exchanged between men in the mid-19th century, nor the fact that circuit-riding lawyers like Lincoln often shared beds with colleagues, should be construed as suggestive of homosexuality on the part of Lincoln or others. She returns to the topic briefly toward the end of the book. I was not so much annoyed with Goodwin for including such a defense as with the fact that we live in a culture so perverse that a great man's status as a heterosexual has to be vigorously documented and defended.

I was also surprised to find that Goodwin incorrectly refers to Lee surrendering to Grant "at the Appomatox Court House." This is a novice's error. The surrender took place in a village called Appomatox Courthouse in the home of one Wilmer McLean, on whose former property elsewhere in Virginia the first Battle of Bull Run was fought. Ken Burns' film The Civil War documents the ironic fact that the war began and ended on McLain's property. Goodwin should have gotten this right.

I recommend Rivals to you. The wisdom and moral uprightness of Lincoln shine through in this excellent work. He is a shining example of virtue. This worthwhile book serves to remind us that we should relate to friend and foe alike with patience, charity, and kindness, as Lincoln did.

1 comment:

Hindto said...

Great review. I am anxious to dig into this book!

Karen