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Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln Paperback – November 12, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

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Like Paul and Steven Kendrick, authors of the recent Douglass and Lincoln, Stauffer has to scale up to achieve book size, since the men’s personal relationship consisted of just three meetings. Stauffer does that partially by using the Kendricks’ method of chronicling Douglass’ criticisms of Lincoln and partially by presenting a dual biography couched in the theme of the self-made man. As he hits the mile markers of the men’s rise from nothing, Stauffer, an English professor, often speculates about what each man “certainly” or “would have” thought about events in their lives (such as Lincoln’s supposed homosexuality, of which Stauffer is convinced, despite acknowledging there is no explicit evidence). This casts his narrative more as historical essay than straightforward history. Stauffer also emphasizes what he regards as key features of the men’s interaction, such as a friendship, perhaps genuine, perhaps diffident, growing out of Lincoln’s incremental adoption of the abolitionist position championed by Douglass. A work well worth the attention of students of emancipation. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"John Stauffer's GIANTS is a lyrical, insightful treatment of the fascinating relationship between two geniuses, one a politician and the other a radical reformer. Both Lincoln and Douglass heard the music of words in their heads as few others, and Stauffer has an ear for the two of them in harmony. That they started in such different places ideologically and yet moved together at the critical moment of emancipation makes this a timely and important book. Stauffer brings the tools of literature and history to bear on this comparison with unmatched skill."―David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Frederick Douglass' Civil War and A Slave No More

"In this stunning book, John Stauffer has given us the most insightful portrait of either Lincoln or Douglass in years. In graceful prose, he tells a moving story of the two men who dominated Nineteenth century American life -- as allies across the racial divide, friends who drew common inspiration from hard scrabble beginnings and a love of language, and fellow travelers on the road of American self-making. Giants is simply must reading!"―Richard S. Newman, author of Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers

Like a daguerreotype, which nineteenth-century Americans thought captured not simply surface appearances, but peoples' souls, this book moves beyond biography to allow us to recover the inner lives of two utterly uncommon common men. This is the most insightful book about race and friendship in the nineteenth century that I have read. It's poignant and perceptive, a book to be savored, a book that will last.―Steven Mintz, Columbia University, author of America and Its Peoples: A Mosaic in the Making

"John Stauffer's collective biography of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln stands apart from other biographies by focusing on how each man continually remade himself, with help from women, words, self-education, physical strength, and luck. In the process Stauffer gives us the texture and feel--a "thick description"--of the strange worlds that Douglass and Lincoln inhabited. The result is a path-breaking work that dissolves traditional conceptions of these two seminal figures (Lincoln the "redeemer" president, Douglass the assimilationist). He reveals how Douglass towered over Lincoln as a brilliant orator, writer, agitator, and public figure for most of his life. He shows us how words became potent weapons for both men. And he tells the poignant story of how these preeminent self-made men ultimately converged, despite their vastly different agendas and politics, and helped transform the nation."―Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University, author of The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; 1 edition (November 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446698989
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446698986
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #197,515 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Stauffer is Professor of English and African American Studies and former chair of American Studies at Harvard University, and the new editor of 21st Editions, a limited edition photography press.

He is the author or editor of 15 books and over 100 articles focusing on antislavery and/or photography.

Two of his books ("GIANTS" and "State of Jones") were national bestsellers. "The Black Hearts of Men" was the co-winner of the Frederick Douglass Book Prize and the Lincoln Prize runner-up. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was a Lincoln Prize finalist.

He has been a frequent contributor to 21st Editions. His writings on photography have also appeared in "Young America: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes," "WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY," and "Listening to Cement."

His new book, "Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American," will be available in November 2015.

His interest in visual culture extends to exhibitions and film. He consulted on the traveling exhibition "WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY" (2012-14). He advised and appeared in three award-winning documentaries ("God in America"; "The Abolitionists"; and "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross"); and he has been a consultant for feature films including "Django" and the forthcoming "Free State of Jones", directed by Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey, which is based on his book.

His essays and reviews have appeared in "Time", "Wall Street Journal", "New York Times", "Washington Post", "Huffington Post", and in scholarly journals and books.

He has appeared on national radio and television shows, including "The Diane Rehm Show," "C-SPAN," and "Book TV with Susan Swain," and he has lectured throughout the United States and Europe.

In 2009 the U.S. State Department's International Information Programs hired him as one of its speakers.

That same year Harvard named Professor Stauffer the Walter Channing Cabot Fellow for "achievements and scholarly eminence in the fields of literature, history or art." He has also received two teaching awards from Harvard: the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award; and the Jan Thaddeus Teaching Prize.

He lives in Cambridge with his wife, Deborah Cunningham, and their two sons, Erik and Nicholas.

(August 2015)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Lew Craig on August 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
There are some problems with "Giants." I have to agree with the review by person from Louisville that the characterization of Lincoln and his family as "white trash" was over the top. That term has contemporary implications which were not true for the Lincoln family.

Furthermore, I have a problem with the author blanketing the relationship between Lincoln and Speed as homosexual. If he were writing about contemporary people who had said the things Speed and Lincoln wrote to one another I would tend to agree with his conclusions. But this was a different age. The language of expression and relationships were quite different. It was not unusual for men to sleep together as a matter of convenience. We do not know what happened between Lincoln and Speed. For the author to broach the subject is not a problem, but to reach the conclusions he did without examining other possibilities is completely revisionist. I have read other biographies of Lincoln that discuss the relationship, but are willing to look at the relationship with open minds. Certainly those we admire, respect and look to are human as are the rest of us. Many outstanding intellects and leaders have been homosexual, but right or wrong, it is a stretch to attribute tendencies to an individual where such a tendency may not exist. It is not good history. Whether Lincoln and Speed were in a homosexual relationship is not the issue. Such a relationship would not diminish the greatness of Lincoln. The historical assumption of such a relationship were none may have existed is the problem. This assumption leads me to question other conclusions of the author.

"Giants" is a fine concept. I did not find as many parallels between Lincoln and Douglass as I had anticipated, but it was a fascinating study.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By John Wood on November 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a brilliant and deeply moving book. There is no reason for me to repeat the praise others have so justly given it, but I would like to mention one feature that has not yet been pointed out. Stauffer's prose reads with the same brilliance of a powerful novelist's prose. I hate to use a cliché, but I couldn't put it down. I opened it planning to read a bit and then go on to other things I had to do that afternoon. But I read into the evening and then the following days until I quickly finished it. It is not merely the beauty of Stauffer's prose style that pulls the reader in, but also his skillful handling of the two narratives he unfolds. Even though I knew the general facts of both men's lives, I was captivated by the way Stauffer developed their characters, and I kept wanting to know what was going to happen next. John Stauffer is not only a major historian, he is also a great story teller.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By AKW on November 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover
As the nation's preeminent scholar of interracial friendship, John Stauffer turns in Giants from his previous prize-winning work on abolitionist friends to offer the first collective biography of the two preeminent self-made men in American history: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. That previous book, The Black Hearts of Men, was a hard act to follow but Stauffer goes even further here in Giants. Vivid, insightful, exceptionally well-researched and beautifully written, Giants restores to both mythic figures their complexity, ambiguity, and humanity, giving us an entirely fresh vision of two individuals who transformed themselves before they could transform society. Just as exciting, though, is the parallel narrative of national identity. As Stauffer reflects one giant off the other, we see in their intersecting lives a national journey toward the Second Revolution of the 1860s. This braided story of Lincoln and Douglass, one of change and self-making, alliance and conflict, faith and loss, is the nation¿s own story of bonds and betrayals during the nineteenth century. In fact, while other books might focus on Douglass and Lincoln's politics during the Civil War, only Stauffer examines the bigger picture: the ways they made and remade themselves and the nation their lives, loves, friendships, and the whole nature of love and friendship in the Civil War era. He weaves together themes of historical memory, race, gender, loyalty and forgiveness, empathy, outsiders, and the boundaries of the personal and political. The book therefore gives us a deeper, fuller picture of both men's lives and characters, and also a window on a whole era.Read more ›
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Union65 on January 24, 2010
Format: Paperback
In an 1865 speech, Frederick Douglass called Lincoln "Emphatically the Black Man's president." Douglass also has written, "In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race." [1881]

Lincoln's claim to being the Great Emancipator lies not just with his Emancipation Proclamation, but also with the 13th Amendment, which he insisted on including in the 1864 Republican platform, & which he sheparded through Congress. Those who feel Lincoln was insincere about freedom and equality would do well to read LaWanda Cox's Lincoln and Black Freedom: A Study in Presidential Leadership, Richard Striner's Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle To End Slavery, and Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, as well as Allen Guelzo's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America; and James Oakes's The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Lincoln felt that politics was the art of the possible. His political artistry included an acute knowledge of public opinion (and prejudices), a finely-honed sense of timing, and political discretion. Lincoln never retreated from emancipation once it was decided upon, just as he never affirmed black inferiority to be inherent. During his debates with Stephen Douglas he never said that he would never (in future) support equality. He didn't put stock in physical differences--in a well-known private memoranda he mused how anyone could be enslaved if the criterion was to have darker skin, or lesser intellect, because everyone was lighter or darker, or of varying degrees of intellect.
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