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Editorial Reviews


“In this subtle, insightful study, Robert Bray offers the first scholarly account of Lincoln’s reading. A professor of English, Bray has a keen literary sensibility and broad culture that enable him to shed bright light on the development of Lincoln’s taste and on the ways in which the books he read influenced his thinking and writing.” —Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life  “Robert Bray has not only discovered every book and text and poem and treatise and humorous sketch and Shakespeare play that Lincoln read; he has also read them himself, and he takes the reader inside those readings—and therefore inside Lincoln’s mind—in this excellent book.”—William Lee Miller, author of President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman

“Abraham Lincoln’s reading, like almost everything else about him, was quite distinctive. Robert Bray’s approach to this important aspect of Lincoln’s development is both original and provocative, for it aims at giving us not only the substance of Lincoln’s most consequential reading but the all-important texture and flavor as well.” —Douglas L. Wilson, author of Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words

Reading with Lincoln adds an important dimension to our understanding of our sixteenth president’s mind. It effectively delineates the rich resources of literature and language that he brought to his political career. Bray’s discussion of Lincoln’s reading in religion and science is especially cogent. It should finally put to rest the claim that Lincoln was a Christian.” —Fred Kaplan, author of Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

Lincoln Revealed through the Books He Read

Robert Bray's Reading with Lincoln is a welcome addition to the endless list of Abraham Lincoln titles.  Do we really need another book on Lincoln?  The answer in this case is a resounding and somewhat ironic, yes.  It turns out that we need a book on Lincoln and books.  Bray has written a masterful account of Lincoln as a reader.  The catalog of books he read is impressive and fascinating and gives a new window into the man.  Lincoln was a classic autodidact and to journey through his life in books is to see his mind in formation and action.  Bray has to do some speculation to fill in Lincoln's library and what he actually read, but his guess work is honest and well grounded, giving his book some of the pace and interest of a mystery story.

Lincoln was an eclectic reader and read low-brow regional humor as much as he did classics and William Shakespeare.  Bray, through
Lincoln, brings to life the lost world of publishing and reading taste in the mid-nineteenth century.  Nothing ages faster and to its detriment more than humor writing and writing on popular politics and current events.  Lincoln read deeply in such literature in his time.
In reconstructing Lincoln's studies Bray delivers a study of faded popular works, like those of Artemus Ward and Petroleum Vesuvius
Nasby (David Ross Locke).  Lincoln defied the educational snobbery and standards of his day and proselytized for regional humor and
obscure Western political prose.  His reading helped make him unique and also let him step into a more modern form of expression and
communication confidently divorced from the long-winded, classical allusion-laden style of the politicians and academics who considered themselves his social and educational betters.  This even came up in his cabinet where he regaled his colleagues with "low" humor tales taken from Ward and Nasby that mystified most of them and tried their patience.  But with the benefit of hindsight we can see how Lincoln was developing a speaking, political, and writing style more attuned to the modern democracy he would not live to see.

Lincoln built his own world of expression and knowledge over a long period.  Lincoln's self-education—and limited formal education— began with the moral didactics found in readers; grammars; popular versions of Aesop; and, of course, sermons and the Bible.  If
much of what constituted Lincoln's early reading is guesswork, the books Bray discusses are still fascinating chances to speculate about the development of Lincoln's mind.  The roots of Lincoln's religious skepticism are one such puzzle.  Constantin de Volney's writing on history, civilization, political philosophy, and theology in The Ruins (1791), now forgotten, clearly was a formative experience.
Lincoln also read Thomas Paine and probably David Hume.  The poetry of Robert Burns and Lord Byron—long emphasized by biographers of Lincoln—also get a strong analysis from Bray.  Lincoln wrote his own poem in 1838, "The Suicide's Soliloquy," which was even darker than its title.  In the realm of poetry, some authors have tried to link Lincoln's modern sensibility to his reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), but Bray shows that this connection of the two great contemporaries is a fabrication.  Lincoln read more obscure poets, like Thomas Hood, whose satirical tone he admired.

In the books Lincoln read, both a satirical and serious vein shines through that mirrors the contours of his personality.  As grammars
were a key in his formative years, legal commentaries honed his early adult mind.  He then turned his rational legal skills to dissecting
human nature and creation itself.  Robert Chamber's Vestiges of Creation (1844) gave Lincoln grounding in radical science.  He
also read Theodore Parker and other theological radicals.  In one of the strongest sections of the book, Bray shows how Lincoln's views of humanity, religion, and politics found a chord in his eclectic mastery of Shakespeare.  Many minds have found similar solace in the
bard, but Bray's most original and crowning achievement is his account of Lincoln's love of low-brow regional humor, especially Ward
and Nasby.  Lincoln really comes alive through these authors whose rough humor he performed for White House colleagues.  Lincoln's
psychology, as far as we can know it, in which high spirits and depressive near nihilism coexisted, reveals itself in these authors.
They had humor but also a grim view of human motivations and abilities.  It is a testament to Bray's skill that Shakespeare, Paine, Byron, William Blackstone, Chambers, and the others set the stage for Ward and Nasby.  Bray shows the reader the rough insight into human nature both in the popular comedy that Lincoln treasured and in the better known authors.  Great ideas came to life in Lincoln's bawdy jokes and jests, and that ability to inspire and instruct in a common medium was perhaps his greatest genius as a politician and a man.

Bray is to be commended for his outstanding scholarship and lively presentation of Lincoln's reading history.  Lincoln spent a large
portion of his life immersed in books.  Bray shows that though we are immersed in Lincoln studies, a new Lincoln can still be unearthed.  A man who studied so much merits much study, and Bray's originality in doing so rewards his readers.

(John Patrick Daly H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews 2012-02-01)

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"This ambitious and important book presents a fascinating window into the mind of Abraham Lincoln. Robert Bray, Colwell Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University, started with the deceptively simple idea of reading everything Lincoln is thought to have read, a project that, remarkably, seems never to have been undertaken before. "By considering closely those books," Bray intends "to explore what their contents and styles contributed to Lincoln's 'liberal arts education' and thereby to his political artistry" (page ix). In an appendix, Bray provides a very useful list of everything he has determined that Lincoln read, in itself a tremendously valuable service to Lincoln scholarship.

Bray generally considers the books in the order in which Lincoln likely read them, an elegant way of organizing this mass of material while at the same time depicting the arc of Lincoln's intellectual and political interests. In the first chapter, "The Sometime Schoolboy," Bray examines in particular the grammar and school books Lincoln likely read, where, Bray argues, Lincoln first became acquainted with ideas and writings that would remain with him to the end of his days. With the second chapter, "Young Citizen Lincoln," we first encounter the essential New Salem years, when Lincoln embarked on some of his most intensive reading. Here, Bray focuses on the question of Lincoln's religious "infidelity" exploring how Lincoln's reading of such works as Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1794) may have led Lincoln to doubt and ultimately reject the versions of Christianity that swirled around him in his youth; Bray's Lincoln is never even a confirmed theist.

The third chapter, "Tragicomic Melancholy" traces Lincoln's encounter with poetry Poems like Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and various works by Robert Burns and, Bray argues more controversially, George Gordon Byron, seem to exacerbate and provide a focus for Lincoln's emerging depression—his heartbroken love for Ann Rutledge is taken for granted. In this, by far the longest of the chapters, Bray gives full rein to his roots in literary criticism. The fourth chapter, "Necessity and Invention," addresses philosophy, law, transcendentalism, and Unitarians, from Blackstone to Theodore Parker, an assortment that reflects the professional turn of Lincoln's reading in the Springfield years as well as a deepening engagement with religious and philosophical issues of his time. Bray discounts the influence upon Lincoln of Bentham and Mill that Allen Guelzo has found, but agrees that Francis Wayland provided an important connection to liberal political economy. In this chapter, too, Bray follows Lincoln in reading several of the most important treatments of slavery in the immediate antebellum years, including Rowan Hinton's The Impending Crisis of the South (1857). Finally, the fifth chapter focuses on Lincoln's engagement with Shakespeare and, to a lesser extent, the King James Bible. This ground has been well trodden by others, but Bray is, as always, an intelligent and engaging guide across this landscape.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with a task such as this, finding influence and relationships between alleged readings and later writings, between a body of texts and the actions and ideas of a living human. One must be willing to follow Bray when he suggests Lincoln "might have" learned, or rejected, or encountered, some idea or other in these writings, very often with only a relatively weak direct connection between them, as Bray often openly admits. Bray's subtle eye for nuance and meaning serves particularly well in these instances of distant or allusive connection, so that even if one is sometimes left in uncertainty as to the precise impact of a book on Lincoln's thought, still the possibilities traced by Bray help to outline Lincoln's mental world. But where there is a good body of evidence that fairly explicitly links Lincoln to a text, Bray can present especially illuminating insights into Lincoln's mental universe that do not require leaps of faith or logic, as when he can show that Lincoln transformed an anodyne story in Aesop's Fables into an indictment of slavery (page 27). This book does not aspire to be a complete picture of Lincoln's intellectual and political development because it leaves aside personal influences, lived experience, and most crucially, most newspaper and journal reading. Still, Bray goes a long way toward depicting the remarkable range of Lincoln's intellectual and political interests across his entire life, in itself a remarkable achievement." --Martin P. Johnson, Miami University Hamilton

(Martin P. Johnson Journal of Illinois History 2010-06-01)


"Many biographers and scholars have discussed the reading habits of Abraham Lincoln, but Robert Bray, in Reading with Lincoln, has devoted an entire book solely to this fascinating subject. Bray begins by summarizing the very limited formal education that Lincoln re­ceived as a frontier child during the early decades of the nineteenth century—perhaps two months of schooling in his native Kentucky and a year or less attendance at Indiana "blab" schools. Lincoln was essentially self-educated, and Bray analyzes the texts responsible for this amazing self-education, from the English readers and grammar books of Lincoln's youth through the political treatises and Shake­spearean dramas that Lincoln tackled during his adulthood.

Bray, a professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University, brings a literary scholar's skill and sensitivity to his subject. His basic methodology is to provide a detailed analysis of a text that Lincoln likely read and then consider how that work might have influenced Lincoln's political philosophy and his own writing—how Lincoln “assimilated” a text and “made the work in question his own” (p. 162). For example, Bray demonstrates that Edward Gibbon's ideas about the use and abuse of reason in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-87) are "perfectly in accord with Lincoln's perspectives on American society in the Lyceum Address" of 1838 (p. 56). Similarly, Bray suggests that the religious skepticism expressed in the works of Constantin de Volney, Thomas Paine, and Voltaire fueled the religious misgivings of Lincoln's early adulthood. Bray also points out that Lincoln devoured poetry, particularly the poems of Robert Burns and Lord Byron, and that Lincoln "may have been a little shocked to recognize a version of his private self-image in the Byronic hero" (p. 102).

In terms of Lincoln's evolving attitude on slavery, Bray cites the sermons of the abolitionist transcendentalist minister, Theodore Parker. Most likely, Lincoln, according to Bray, came across a book of Parker's addresses and sermons in his law office in 1858. From a speech delivered by Parker on July 4, 1858, Lincoln probably lifted aphrase that worked its way into the Gettysburg Address: "Democracy is Direct Self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people" (p. 176). Like Parker, Lincoln came to believe, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision, that "there might even be a conspiracy to nationalize slavery in the United States"—an idea that Lincoln developed in his 1858 "House Divided" speech (p. 181).

In some case, Bray is properly speculative: Did Lincoln move closer to issuing an emancipation decree in the late summer of 1862 after reading Moncure Daniel Conway's The Rejected Stone (1862), which articulated a call for immediate, unconditional emancipa­tion?

The Lincoln scholar will surely appreciate Bray's analyses of key texts that Lincoln read, but this book might not be one for the casual Lincoln buff who might not wish to digest Bray's detailed exegesis of David Hume's Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). That Lincoln tackled such demanding philosophical texts, however, supports Bray's contention that Lincoln possessed an intellect of the highest order.

Bray's book concludes with a chapter titled "Nothing Equals Macbeth," but perhaps more space could have been devoted to the influence of William Shakespeare's great political dramas on Lincoln's speechmaking. Certainly, as Bray suggests, Shakespeare "served as the final existential statement of how he [Lincoln], as a private person, saw the human condition" (p. 189), but Shakespearean cadences and imagery frequently appear in Lincoln's political speeches and writings.

One more minor omission: The jacket cover of Bray's book features Eastman Johnson's painting Boyhood of Lincoln (1868), which depicts Abe as a boy reading by fireside. A book on Lincoln's reading could have included a few of the many paintings and photographs of Lincoln pictured holding his favorite prop: a book."--JAMES T.ACKACH

(James Tackach The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 2011-04-01)

About the Author

Robert Bray is the Colwell Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is the author or editor of numerous articles and books, including Rediscoveries: Literature and Place in Illinois.


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