Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer

I complain sometimes about how many biographies there about high-interest historical and cultural figures. Upon finding starred reviews of new books about John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, or Marilyn Monroe, I often sigh with exasperation as I think of the crowded shelves and the dollars that I could use to get books about somebody else. Sometimes I do pass initially on buying new books about these market-dominating lives, knowing that we already have plenty of books about them, hoping the reading public will not notice, but I then get title requests and have to buy the books anyway. You would think that I would learn.

Every season seems to bring out several more books about Abraham Lincoln, and with the bicentennial of his birth in 2009, the flow of books is even higher than normal. With our budget and obligation to build a balanced collection meeting the needs of a diversity of readers, I can not buy them all. So, again, I mutter my annoyance.

The irony is that I actually enjoy reading about Abraham Lincoln. His life can be (and is) interpreted so many ways. To one author he is a hero and to another a tyrant or perhaps only a victim of circumstance. There never seems to be an end to the possible ways of looking at Lincoln. In this light, I have found Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer to be worth a bit of my book budget as well as my time.

In the title, Stauffer does indicate his subject - the comparison of Douglass and Lincoln. Douglass and Lincoln were both self-made and self-educated men, born in poverty, denied schooling, large men forced to work from early ages, who somehow became eloquent speakers and leading voices of conscience at a time when America was bent on the accumulation of wealth and land. The first chapter highlights their similarities, but then the book progresses to show how the two men developed and eventually crossed paths.

Stauffer meets his obligation as an author to portray the light and dark sides of the two leaders. At points I thought Douglass was being touted as the greater man and then I thought the portrayals reversed. In the end, Stauffer seems to judge them both favorably, noting that they succeeded together in ending slavery and failed together at really improving the lives of blacks in North or South. They were helpless in swaying the racist attitudes that kept blacks poor and disenfranchised for another 100 years after the Civil War.

Stauffer is a good story teller who weaves the lives together well. Among the many Lincoln books on the market, Giants is a good selection for libraries.

Stauffer, John. Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Twelve, 2008. ISBN9780446580090

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