Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Douglass-Lincoln debates (Excerpted from PopMatters)

Their lives were defined by what they opposed as much as by what they supported; they were connected in only the most general terms, shaped by slavery and imprisoned in the amber of our common assumptions.

Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln have been for generations two of the accessible saints of the American iconography. For black Americans, Douglass has been held high as the defining pre-civil rights era example of speaking truth to power. For Americans generally, Lincoln remains the president most responsible for holding a fractious nation together.

In recent years, Lincoln biographies from Doris Kearns Goodwin, James M. McPherson, and Ronald C. White, among others, have taken the wraps off old depictions of Lincoln, their nuanced investigations revealing fresh layers to the complex, driven, conflicted man who would become the 16th President of the United States. Readers of historical nonfiction haven’t been so lucky with biographies of Douglass, the runaway slave who transformed himself into a publisher, activist, and one of the most commanding orators of the American 19th century.

Douglass biographies have been fewer and farther between, and inevitably marginalized, to some degree, on the lower and distant shelves of the bookstore of the national narrative (with the other black studies books) in a kind of de libris historical segregation. The two figures are connected by slavery, the ‘‘peculiar institution’’ that would define them both. It makes sense that that institution should unite them literarily.

John Stauffer’s Giants brilliantly addresses this absence with an eloquent, muscular, compassionate, thoroughly readable conflation of two singular American lives, a biography of two intersecting lives whose grappling with the evil of slavery created a bond uncommon in American history, and almost as rare in American literature. ...

Read the rest at PopMatters

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