Over the past decade, historians have gained a new respect for the value of oral history and reminiscence. For generations serious scholars had discounted this type of historical data as being too easily flawed. It is the very nature of reminiscence that it is history being perceived by individuals, and is therefore susceptible to the human traits of bias, misconception, and utter falsification. However, work being done by modern scholars has shown that used carefully and selectively, many historical facts and incidents can be divined from these sources.
To this end, a number of books have appeared recently that prints reminiscences, recollections, and personal remembrances of Abraham Lincoln. Many individuals who personally interacted with Lincoln left behind records of their experiences in publications of all sorts. In Lincoln as I Knew Him: Gossip, Tributes & Revelations from His Best Friends and Worst Enemies, Harold Holzer has mined a number of these sources to paint a unique and entertaining portrait of our 16th President.
Holzer presents his selections by group rather than topically or chronologically. For instance, the first chapter contains reminiscences from family members; other chapters come from fellow lawyers, foreign observers, authors, artists, and African-Americans. One intriguing chapter contains reminiscences from foes and political enemies.
Harold Holzer does an excellent job in selecting reminiscences and recollections from many different, and often somewhat obscure sources. Personal journals and diaries, periodicals and newspapers, and little used compilations of reminiscences all served as sources.
The editor introduces each chapter, and prefaces each individual reminiscence, putting it into context. The Lincoln that emerges from the pages of Holzer's book is a man who had a natural curiosity, and was eager to learn from a variety of sources, but especially from reading. It has long been recognized that Lincoln was a self-taught man. Given this, Holzer strives to show that this was a life-long process, and that a voracious appetite for reading helped create his genius.
I found few faults in this book. I did wish that some of the entries had been better identified as to origin. I found many reminiscences that were completely unknown to me, and would have welcomed the opportunity to go to the original source and read further. I was so fascinated by the chapter collecting reminiscences by Lincoln's foes that I would have liked to have seen more such selections.
But these complaints are minor, and I found Lincoln as I Knew Him a charming collection of reminiscences of a most complicated American icon.