If I could give one book a sixth star, this would be it. I have no words to accurately describe the herculean task of historical research, analysis and narrative that Doris Kearns Goodwin herein accomplishes. Every American knows just how awesome a man and Abraham Lincoln was, but Goodwin's Team of Rivals
manages to simultaneously elevate the man to new impossible heights and ground that estimation in cross-referenced citations that leave all doubt about the veracity of such assertions of his magnanimity, humility, genius, wisdom and affability by the wayside. Team of Rivals
is unique in the flood of Lincoln books in that it attempts to reveal the true nature of the president through his associations and to reveal key aspects of his character through the way he interacted with, influenced and controlled the warring factions within his cabinet. It's a bold gamble and at the start, I questioned whether or not the narrative would hold together. Firstly, the project is absolutely ambitious. The idea of almost full-length biographies of Seward, Chase, Bates and Lincoln in one volume seems like it would lend itself to a tug-of-war in which no figure is covered satisfactorily. At times, bouncing back and forth between men, I felt myself longing for more about particular aspects of this or that just before Goodwin cut away to cover what was going on in a rival's life. The narrative is compelling, however, and four more different men could hardly have been found in all of the US let alone within the same party and the same cabinet. Lincoln's ability to not only control the ambition of such machine politic men, but win them over to his own cause to the point that they treated the "prairie lawyer" with such deference is awe-inspring. Each of the figures is covered so well that you truly get to know their minds through and through, and yet, miraculously, Lincoln comes forward and rises above - weaving his presence throughout the lives of these men - often in the background, suffering disappointment with inhuman magnanimity and at other times. The sheer improbability of Lincoln rising to be the beloved master of his rivals is a staggering thought to contemplate.
There were moments where Goodwin felt a tad repetitive in her assertions of Lincoln's character, which is normally quite okay. I think she leaves the impression sometimes though that she's unsure that she's made her point, or made it quite well enough to stand up to the probably very intense scrutiny of the Civil War buff community and to distinguish her biography of Lincoln in a field of quite literally hundreds of similar attempts. In such a large book, especially read at quite a decent clip, the repetition can be wearisome. Nevertheless, such minor nitpicking can be forgiven given the fact that the arguments made in favor of Lincoln's self-possessedness and control of both the larger than life personalities, events and his own emotions have been called into question by a spate of historians seeking a new niche interpretation of a well-researched and analyzed historical figure. Goodwin's work does justice to the man in refuting assertions that he was controlled by his cabinet, deferential to the point of subservience to his generals, or just plain lucky. It also seeks to moderate recent psychohistorical analyses of Lincoln's melancholy and depressed nature that argue he pushed himself into work to escape intense bouts of unhappiness. Lincoln was generally a very happy and funny man. Goodwin presents him as such, which, ironically, only heightens the empathy we feel for him when he's careworn. In short, he's a hugely sympathetic character, and probably no more so than under Goodwin's reverent care. Is it too forgiving or apologetic? Does it sweep his flaws under the rug and enhance his legend? I don't see how any faithful and human recounting could not do so. The man's ordinary humanness is what makes him such a legend to begin with.
The narrative is very engaging. I don't find it ordinarily that difficult to immerse myself and buy in to well-written fiction or non-fiction, but Goodwin's pacing and illumination of Lincoln's private interpretation and reaction to the momentous events around him are funny, charming, witty and at times, I have to say, heart-breakingly depressing. She avoids the well-trod out history of individual battles, relying on other historians' analyses and instead focuses on the part Lincoln played in them, either in his command over his generals, in his desperate reaction to bad news and the care which he showed to his troops or his elation at good news. Overriding all is the sense that Lincoln was a masterful - well, I'd say politician, but I think that term is far too sullied to describe him. He was a masterful reader of the hearts and minds of people and a tireless advocate of rightness. You root for his success, worry over his declining health, laugh at his fireside stories and jokes and cry, yes, physically cry, when Booth brings the life of one of the most perfect human beings the world has ever seen to an end. It's hard to not be emotional when it all wraps up and feel an immense sense of injustice rendered.Team of Rivals
is historical narrative at its finest - inspiring, revelatory and grounded in enough research to pass muster with even the dustiest college professor lurking in the basement of some university library ready to deem your thesis "inadequate."