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Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

3.79  ·  Rating Details ·  534 Ratings  ·  68 Reviews
For Abraham Lincoln, whether he was composing love letters, speeches, or legal arguments, words mattered. In Lincoln, acclaimed biographer Fred Kaplan explores the life of America's sixteenth president through his use of language as a vehicle both to express complex ideas and feelings and as an instrument of persuasion and empowerment. Like the other great canonical writer ...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published October 28th 2008 by Harper
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It seems I am rapidly becoming a fan of literary biography. With this and the Dostoyevsky volume, I've become almost addicted. I need more.

This shows the development of Lincoln, his literary tastes, his oratory, and his writing style over the years, and showing the authors that influenced him. Wonderful stuff.
Ryan Holiday
Jul 05, 2012 Ryan Holiday rated it really liked it
An exploration of the effects of being articulate, well-spoken and obsessed with learning is especially relevant after watching Obama use those three traits to take the presidency. It's the author's point that Lincoln's log cabin story has obscured how impressive a writer and speaker he really was. More importantly, we forget that with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt we've never really had a president before with equal deftness in reading, writing and speaking. Normally they are good at one ...more
Dec 09, 2008 Dan rated it liked it
A hybrid book that never quite decides whether to be a biography laced with lit crit or a literary study in biographical context. Kaplan traces a few major influences -- the Bible, Shakespeare, Burns, Byron, and Emerson -- through Lincoln's life & writing; he finds some interesting echoes but rides his horses too hard. He is best at showing Lincoln's essayist approach to speechwriting and his faith in the power of words to move the nation.
David Goldman
May 02, 2014 David Goldman rated it liked it
A fascinating subject but a pretty mediocre book.  The most interesting part is the review of Lincoln's early influences of the great humanist writers that seem to stay with Lincoln throughout his career.  It's also interesting so much of Lincoln's very early success was basically because he could actually read and write.  Yet, there is very little insight into Lincoln's writing that one doesn't get just be reading it.  The author tends to repeat nearly judgements throughout the book without exp ...more
Feb 20, 2009 Chris rated it it was ok
Some annoying errors marred it (Jackson did something as president in 1815--not!) early. Later, it got almost throw-across-the-room inaccurate, particularly on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. I realize the guy is an English prof, but he should have his basic facts down, like the differences between territories and states. Those errors will lead some astray, and they will just bother others (like me) to no end. The earlier part of this is better than the later part, and it's hard to believe how relative ...more
Jun 15, 2012 Angie rated it liked it
I really like words, and I really like Abraham Lincoln, so I was pretty excited to read this book. It took me a couple of months to get through it though, partly because almost every time I sat down to read it I would start dozing within 15 minutes. I love that one of my favorite presidents is the most well read president, but the writing of this biography wasn't particularly exciting.
Jan 20, 2009 Peter rated it liked it
This was okay, but Douglas Wilson's "Lincoln's Sword" is a much better biography of Lincoln as a writer. Kaplan has some good insights, but much of the time he sounds like a college sophomore showing off in a mid-term exam: "Like Emerson, [Lincoln:] had the gift of aphoristic vividness in arranging linguistic tropes into effective combinations and shifting viewpoints." Ugh.
Dec 31, 2008 Jennifer rated it really liked it
Matter of fact account of Lincoln's relationship with words and writers and how the well intentioned idea and the well phrased rhetoric can coexist. Especially recommended for literati people who need an injection of nonfiction once in a while.
Dec 14, 2008 Janet rated it it was ok
Shelves: memoir-bio
This book was more political than personal, not my thing.
Peter Pactor
Jan 16, 2017 Peter Pactor rated it really liked it
This was a particularly good book for someone who would like to be a writer and for someone who would like to know more about Lincoln. When Mr. Kaplan sticks to the development of Lincoln's writing, the content is very good; however, where he digresses into other areas and makes assumptions which I believe he hasn't the evidence for, he seems to err in some of his conclusions.
I found myself asking: Where did you get this? or Why do you think so? Upon rereading I couldn't find the answer.

This is a vexing book, a book that disappoints almost with every line. Yet like Lincoln himself, it loses all the battles and wins the war. Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer is the first book to propose Lincoln as an intellectual, and its argument is beautiful and convincing. Lincoln was not exactly a politician, despite his talents at manipulating friends and enemies. Basically, he spent the 1850s articulating a single argument, against the spread of slavery. Eventually his argument was so com ...more
Apr 07, 2010 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Certainly the most intimate portrait of our 16th President, the man, that I have ever read. The book concentrates on Lincoln's formative years prior to assuming the Presidency and delves into his literary and intellectual development as a person and writer. The influences of the Bible, Shakespeare, Burns, Byron, Emerson, Aesop's Fables and others are played out and highlighted. Lincoln wrote all of his own speeches and position papers and his utilization of clear, simple and precise linguistic t ...more
Dec 26, 2012 Steve rated it really liked it
Kaplan analyzes the growth of our greatest Presidential writer, from his childhood reading and writing up through the final speech Lincoln gave a few days before his assassination. You won't find here a lengthy analysis of the most famous speeches (after all, there are whole books on the Gettysburg Address and maybe even the Second Inaugural), but thoughtful ideas on almost every page. I can't help but be amazed at how this man with so little formal education became so literate and eloquent. His ...more
Dan Wilson
Jan 03, 2016 Dan Wilson rated it liked it
I'm glad I picked this book up as I'm interested in learning more about Lincoln outside of his extremely well documented presidency. Learning more about his self-education and what writers deeply influenced him, particularly to the point where he would frequently quote them in both formal and informal speech, was incredibly useful. However, I found the book itself to be rather a slog. Mr. Kaplan's writing often seems designed to be inaccessible, taking linguistic perambulations so convoluted as ...more
Stephen Henninger
Jan 09, 2015 Stephen Henninger rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, history
While not the most exciting Lincoln biography I read, it was an interesting way to look at Lincoln and how his writings influenced him as a person, lawyer, and politician. At times, the writing was too slow and not of great interest. My biggest complaint, though, is that the chapter on the presidency years was far too short and felt rushed; most of Lincoln's writings of note are from his time as president but they were hardly analyzed.

The good portions of this book are that you learn a lot about
Dec 31, 2013 Stephen rated it it was amazing
This is a wonderful volume. Kaplan is a good story teller, having studied so many fine story tellers. He spends a lot of time setting up his character of Lincoln, as to what he read as a child and his growing thirst, tracking down when and what material was or may have been available to Lincoln at a young age and from what source they sprang from. He speculates Lincoln as a free verse poet, before the recognition of it as a style. He looks at Lincoln as the speech writer, but also as a sharer on ...more
Mar 28, 2009 Matthew rated it really liked it
Kaplan makes a compelling case for the proposition that President Lincoln's literary side is integral to his greatness. Although the book is subtitled "The Biography of a Writer," it is at least as much the biography of a reader. Among the more interesting processes one observes here is the fusion of Lincoln's fundamentalist upbringing with his innate agnosticism. We also perceive the development of a first-rate political mind unafraid to invoke the poison pen when necessary. And what's more, we ...more
Apr 07, 2011 Jennifer rated it liked it
Lincoln is perhaps one of the most-written-about figures in American history, so it's a challenge to find a new angle to approach him from. It's a challenge Kaplan attempts but does not quite meet in a book about Lincoln specifically as a writer, examining his literary influences. Unfortunately, in the absence of definite evidence, much of Kaplan's book takes the form of "Considering X was published when Lincoln was 20, and was very popular, is it not possible it affected his thinking and writin ...more
Mar 04, 2012 Brad rated it really liked it
Biographies are hit or miss. If its someone you really like you can sit there and soak up the gory details, but if its someone you are just discovering, who really cares what kind of woman his great aunt Trudy was? The cool thing about this biography is that it had a theme. It looked at how Lincoln was a product of what he read. I swear that is the only reason I made it through the whole thing. Otherwise it would have been just one fact after another, an exercise in memorization, and I would not ...more
Constantin Minov
Dec 29, 2013 Constantin Minov rated it really liked it
A stoical character, an entirely self-taught man with a strong work ethic.Lincoln was obsessed with words, for him each sentence had to be well crafted and each public speech had to be well polished. He was also obsessed with learning because he understood that manual labor wouldn't get him any opportunity to change his poverty status. This book is about what Lincoln did as a word crafter and how his public speaking skills made him became one of best well-spoken president of the US. This book br ...more
Bill Hall
Mar 29, 2009 Bill Hall rated it really liked it
An excellent overview of Lincoln's development as a writer, focusing on the literary influences that shaped him. There have been several excellent works in recent years focusing on Lincoln's presidential writings; Kaplan's work is a worthwhile prologue to those works, and draws from not only his published speeches and writings, but his letters and legal papers to produce a well-rounded portrait of our most literary president. I would have given this five stars if not for several minor, but annoy ...more
May 26, 2012 Aaron rated it liked it
I really enjoyed this "lens" for viewing Lincoln's life: his favorite things to read and his writings, but the last chapter, which covered his presidency, was way, WAY too rushed. It dealt with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln's second inauguration address in about 25 pages, and did not really cover any of his other writings while president in any meaningful way. The book was still a good read, but it felt like a lot of set up with very little payoff at the end.
Chris Aylott
Jul 30, 2009 Chris Aylott rated it liked it
Kaplan examines Lincoln's life through his reading and writing, showing which authors influenced Lincoln the most and how his own thinking evolved over time.

As history, it's a little shaky -- Kaplan spends a lot of time asserting that Lincoln must have thought this or felt that, and I don't see anything backing him up. On the other hand, he does a good job highlighting how the early Republican party and Lincoln's rise to the presidency were driven by ideas and the thoughtful expression of those
Apr 06, 2013 Mike rated it liked it
This is more like 3 1/2 stars.

I liked it. Well written. At times, I thought the analysis of Lincoln's writings was a bit dry. And sometimes, I thought, the author made a bit of a stretch in connecting phrases from Lincoln's distant reading with phrases in Lincoln's memorable speeches and writing. He also has a bit of hero worship going on, where Lincoln (forgive my hyperbole) can do no wrong. Still, a good read--and it made me want to read everything Lincoln read.

And I just realized that I finis
Þorbjörn Þórðarson
Jun 25, 2016 Þorbjörn Þórðarson rated it really liked it
A truly outstanding account on one of the best presidents and how literature and books of all kinds shaped his policy and thinking. Lincoln was constantly reading and was an outstanding writer himself. Many of his best speeches were highly influenced by the books he was reading at the time of writing as detailed in the book. Frd Kaplan did an extremely extensive and thorough research prior to writing the book.
Feb 27, 2011 Sharon rated it really liked it
Informative story of Lincoln's life as a reader and a writer. This man was truly a life-long learner. It brings about the question is being a life long learner a trait that we are born with or is it learned as teachers are expected to teach? Lincoln's parents were not literate people, yet Lincoln was Illinois' most successful lawyer, both a state and national senator, and a US President. His speeches captivated people.
Jan 05, 2011 Craig rated it liked it
Apparently well researched, but I had the sense that the author had an agenda. Yes, Lincoln was self taught. Yes, he was smart. The opinions on his religion, relationships, and motivations seemed tenuous.

I enjoyed the background of the politics of the elections Lincoln both one and lost. I admire and respect Lincoln for all he accomplished.

It makes me wonder how things would have turned out if the Confederate states had been allowed to secede. from the Union.
Ross Cohen
A good book that could have been a great book. Kaplan's analytic gifts are apparent, but restrained - I suspect because the average reader, rightly, has only so much patience for close literary analysis.

I appreciated his attention to Lincoln's literary influences, poems, and early speeches.

I'd recommend this book for anyone looking to find a serviceable bridge between history and literature.
Nov 09, 2008 Pat rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, audiobook
The author focuses on what Lincoln is known to have read and how these books influenced his thinking and writing. Lincoln on slavery, religion and life. This book organizes Lincoln's life into a few years each chapter. It's a quick "read" (the audiobook leaves something to be desired, because the reader is not the best). Anyone interested in Lincoln's life beyond the slavery issue will find this book wonderfully educational.
Sep 24, 2012 Althea rated it really liked it
I did not know that Lincoln wrote poetry and plays. It was suspected that he used satire to humiliate his enemies (written and published anonymously). This is a slow and sometimes boring read, but I felt it was worth it to see how the development of his writing style furthered his political career. If he hadn't been successful as a politician, there is sufficient proof here that he would have been a well known author.
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“His own deism allowed for a God who, having made the world, having made the world, did not participate in the working out of its ends, whose management of human destiny only inherited in his allowing the patterns and values established by His will to work themselves out in human affairs. Lincoln's response to his own question is to change his tone and focus.” 0 likes
“His own deism allowed for a God who, having made the world, did not participate in the working out of its ends, whose management of human destiny only inherited in his allowing the patterns and values established by His will to work themselves out in human affairs. Lincoln's response to his own question is to change his tone and focus.” 0 likes
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