This is an extraordinary book, for several reasons. First, William H. Herndon was Abraham Lincoln’s law partner for sixteen years prior to Lincoln becoming President. Second, because Herndon spent several years after Lincoln’s assassination writing to and interviewing scores of people who knew Lincoln during his life and career up to the presidency. Third, because editors Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis have done an extraordinary job digging into Herndon and Weik’s original letters and notes to discern between actual reporting and embellishment. There have been many versions of Herndon’s Lincoln produced in the years since its 1889 release, but Wilson and Davis’ voluminous and informative endnotes make this edition superior.
Herndon has been accused of being too biased in discussing Lincoln’s relationship with his father and with Mary Lincoln, and of seriously embellishing the story of Ann Rutledge. Nevertheless, he tirelessly undertook an effort to document Lincoln’s history through his interviews of those who knew him best. Herndon’s efforts at collecting this information, along with Weik’s effort to get the book written, have provided an invaluable service to everyone who wants to better understand our sixteenth President. Wilson and Davis complete the picture by helping us sift through what is supported, what is embellishment, and what is still a mystery. Herndon’s Informants, another volume edited by Wilson and Davis, is a must-have corollary to Herndon’s Lincoln as it contains the full text of each letter and interview conducted by Herndon. I highly recommend both.
I should note this edition of Herndon’s Lincoln was the book we read this year in our Lincoln Group of DC book club.
We started reading the book in September 2013 and will have our last monthly meeting in early May 2014, at which time we’ll also discuss the book we’ll read this coming year. [Check out the website for more information on how to join us.] The insights arising from the varying views offered by other book club members were as invaluable as the Wilson and Davis notes. The discussion helped bring the book to life.
David J. Kent is an avid Lincolnophile and the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity. You can order a signed copy directly from me, download the ebook at barnesandnoble.com, and find hard copies at Barnes and Noble bookstores, as well as online at B&N.com and Amazon.com.