L.S. Klepp
December 18, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography

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We gave it an A

The loose bones of Lincoln were hard to fit with neat clothes; and, once on, they were hard to keep neat; trousers go baggy at the knees of a story-teller who has the habit, at the end of a story, where the main laugh comes in, of putting his arms around his knees, raising his knees to his chin, and rocking to and fro.” This description is from Carl Sandburg’s 1926 biography of Abraham Lincoln, but there is the same vivacity in the vignettes scattered among the 700 photographs and illustrations in Lincoln: An Illustrated Biographya volume intended as a companion to the ABC television documentary on Lincoln airing Dec. 26 and 27 but magnificent on its own. ”Soon afterwards there entered, with a shambling, loose, irregular, almost unsteady gait, a tall, lank, lean man with stooping shoulders, long pendulous arms, terminating in hands of extraordinary dimensions, which, however, were far exceeded in proportion by his feet,” wrote a London Times correspondent. ”The impression produced by the size of his extremities, and by his flapping… ears, may be removed by the kindliness, sagacity, and the awkward bonhommie of his face.”

The anecdotes, photographs, and caricatures remind us that our greatest President was an odd duck who seemed uncouth and unpresidential to many of his contemporaries. He told salty stories, employing barnyard terminology; he liked banjo music; he launched into impersonations of stock characters and other politicians. No wonder an Illinois newspaper reproached him early in his career for his ”clownishness.” Since Americans in 1992 aren’t known for demanding formality and dignity from their political leaders, it’s tempting to think of him as closer to us than most politicians of the time, but this may be an illusion. He brooded; he was solitary and stoic and had better things to get in touch with than his feelings. A Socratic figure in his ugliness, questioning spirit, and ironic modesty, he would be as unsettling today as he was 130 years ago; certainly he would be damned by the zealots of our day — moral majoritarians, politically correct professors — as he was by the zealots of his, who called him an ”infidel,” an ”imbecile,” a ”tyrant.”

A book like this can’t provide much historical perspective, but it gives us the man and the ordeals reflected in the changing countenance of the photographs — the harshness of the frontier and the tragic war that finally, in its bitter aftermath, took his life. Most of the photographs come from the collection formed by the grandfather and the mother of Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., a former Life magazine writer and editor who assembled the book with the help of his sons, Philip B. Kunhardt III, an Episcopal minister and writer-producer, and Peter W. Kunhardt, formerly a producer at ABC’s 20/20. So here, in balanced words and pictures, is the gawky book-consuming farm boy who throws the strongest wrestler of New Salem, Ill., to the ground; the failed shopkeeper who becomes a lawyer capable of crushing an opponent before he knows he’s being crushed; the awkward suitor who marries a sometimes hysterical woman who chases him with a butcher knife; the abolitionist who once favored sending freed blacks to Africa but later impresses Frederick Douglass with ”his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race”; the canny politician ”almost childlike in his absence of guile” (as one of his ambassadors phrased it); the religious skeptic with a sense of predestination; the self-deprecating humorist who wrote the greatest speech in American history, 10 sentences long. Not the plaster saint of the schoolbooks, but a complex man of simple republican virtues and democratic hopes. A

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