When Bennet Cerf, co-founder of Random House, was asked to describe the ideal best seller, he supposedly suggested the title Lincoln's Doctor's Dog. Pitches itself, doesn't it? There have been more books about Abraham Lincoln than any other American; this month brings us William Lee Miller's President Lincoln (Knopf; 497 pages), Allen C. Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas (Simon & Schuster; 384 pages) and Did Lincoln Own Slaves? (Pantheon; 311 pages) by Gerald J. Prokopowicz, among others. That Lincoln is a suitable subject for scholarly work nobody would deny, but the volume of it suggests something more: an obsession, an addiction, a Lincoln compulsion.
Miller's angle—and at this point, you really need an angle—is to restrict himself to Lincoln's time in office. The premise proves oddly rich and unclaustrophobic. If nothing else, President Lincoln is germaine to the current debate over the value of a presidential candidate's experience. When Lincoln was inaugurated, he had served one term as a Representative from Illinois; he had also run for the Senate and lost, twice. The outgoing President Buchanan took Lincoln aside for some advice: The right-hand well at the White House, he said, was way better than the left-hand well. The next day, Lincoln's first full day in office, he opened a letter from the commander of Fort Sumter stating that the fort was out of supplies and could Lincoln please send 20,000 men?
Miller is fascinated by the sustained brilliance with which Lincoln navigated the ensuing national convulsion, attempting to reconcile the obstreperous demands of political and military expediency, constitutional writ and, above all, his own galloping moral intelligence, though in places Miller's reverence for his subject borders on personal-ad territory (and he was tall! And funny!). A more caustic and fallible Lincoln appears in Lincoln and Douglas, which is surprisingly rip-roaring for a book about a series of debates in an Illinois Senate campaign. Lincoln makes fun of Stephen Douglas' height (5 ft. 4 in., or 1.63 m) and panders to his racist constituency. But he was always learning—you can watch him evolve before your eyes into the great man he had yet to become.
Did Lincoln Own Slaves? gamely and even-handedly answers the titular question—no—and many, many others (readers are supplied with Lincoln's worst photograph and least-funny joke), but it doesn't shed much light on the question of the Lincoln compulsion. For that you might turn to This Republic of Suffering (Knopf; 346 pages), Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust's new wrenching study of how the mass deaths of the Civil War changed America. At the time, Lincoln's death was fused with Jesus' in the popular imagination—people needed Lincoln to be more than human in order to give meaning to the slaughter over which he presided. We still seem to need that, even while we know it's not true. Maybe it's that gap, between Lincoln's mortal and immortal natures, that we're trying to fill with all these words.