David Reynolds’s thousand-page “cultural biography” of Abraham Lincoln is a work of immense erudition and vast scope that calls to mind a line by Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Unlike conventional life-and-times presidential biographies, which provide military, political, economic, and social contexts, Abe offers a cornucopia of information about the cultural milieu in which Lincoln lived. Readers learn much about antebellum spiritualism, humor, religion, journalism, entertainment, race relations, abolitionism, frontier life, feminism, mobbing, nativism, theater, music, railroads, temperance, and especially literature. Prominent among those subjects are ones about which Reynolds, a Bancroft Prize recipient and Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has published notable books, including John Brown, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. The result is a biography that roots Lincoln firmly in his culture.

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The strength of this approach is evident in the book’s brilliant treatment of Lincoln and race, the most controversial aspect of the rail-splitter’s life. Reynolds notes that the “issue of Lincoln’s racial attitudes is hotly contested, because of his occasional use of the N-word and certain hidebound statements

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