Thursday, June 16, 2011

Father Abraham

Father Abraham: Lincoln and His Sons
by Harold Holzer
232 pages
Boyds Mills Press

Publisher's description:

Abraham Lincoln was devoted to his country - and to his family. President Lincoln called America a "House Divided" but he struggled to keep his own house united. It would prove to be an impossible task. Sickness, loss and family tensions overwhelmed Abraham, Mary, and their four sons. Opening up the Lincoln family album, noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer highlights the family's heartaches and happiness. Illustrated with archival photographs and backed by extensive primary source material, this compelling portrait illuminates the private lives of four generations of a prominent American family.

My comments:

Despite the length, this was a fairly quick, easy read. It was also enlightening, since I only remember learning about Tad Lincoln in school and not Robert, Eddy or Willie. I learned, for instance, that my belief that Tad was the president's favorite son was probably due to the fact that he lived longer than his beloved brother Willie, and thus had more opportunities to pose for photographs with his father.

What kind of a father was Abraham Lincoln? He was frequently absent because of work. When he was home he doted on his younger sons, but not on his oldest son Robert. If this lack of affection had deleterious effects, they are not evident in Holzer's account. Robert cared for his mother and Tad after his father's murder, and ended up being the only son to survive into adulthood and have children of his own.

Plenty of photographs of the Lincolns appear throughout the book, helping to make the large pages fly by. Captions include interesting information about the circumstances surrounding each picture that I greatly appreciated. I was especially impressed by the photo of Tad that the little scamp altered with a drawn-on mustache (p. 120). Picture credits on page 229 reveal that several come from Holzer's own collection. Many others were supplied by the Library of Congress, and the included ID numbers can be used to locate the photographs at

Mary Lincoln, who I've most often heard described as Lincon's "crazy" wife, is also featured prominently throughout the book. Holzer's view is more nuanced: she liked to decorate and entertain, and the deaths of her sons and husband affected her very deeply. Well-chosen photographs show the contrast between her earlier, fashionable dresses (P. 111, very smiliar to this one) and the plain black dresses she wore exclusively after the assassination.

A generous bibliography, extensive index and source notes are appended. Holzer is a renowned Lincoln scholar, so while I trust that he knows what he's talking about, I was disappointed that his notes refer only to the work where a quote may be published without elaborating further on it's source.