With new Lincoln titles appearing at the rate of better than one per week, rarely can the issuance of a new book about our sixteenth president be called an "event." However, if that appellation is ever appropriate, it is certainly so for the publication of Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, with the assistance of Terry Wilson.
Anticipated for years, this book contains the primary source material collected by William Henry Herndon in the years after Lincoln's death. Herndon, Lincoln's long-time law partner, determined shortly after the assassination that he wanted to write a "life" of his friend. Disillusioned with the deification Lincoln's character undertook after his martyrdom, Herndon sought to combine his intimate personal knowledge of his subject with first-person reminiscences to portray Lincoln as he truly was, with all his passions, loves, faults, motives and morals revealed. Herndon wanted to write "the inner life" of Lincoln. To that end, he began to collect statements and letters from the people who were intimate with Lincoln. He interviewed and corresponded with those who knew Lincoln as child and man; those from his native Kentucky; from Indiana where he passed the awkward adolescent years; and those who knew him best in his adopted home state of Illinois.
Herndon never really stopped collecting his data, but neither did he ever write his book. In 1869, chronically low on funds, he sold a copy of his record to Ward Hill Lamon. This manuscript copy was used by Chauncey Black to write a life of Lincoln, which was then published under Lamon's name. Herndon's work did not appear until 1889, and was then principally written by Jesse W. Weik. Weik agreed to collaborate with Herndon on the project after meeting him in Springfield in 1882. The division of labor was such that Weik wrote the narrative using Herndon's written records and reminiscences and a never-ending stream of correspondence and input from Herndon. However, the resulting book was not the financial success they had anticipated.
The physical possession of the Herndon papers was passed on to Weik so that he could write the biography, and they remained in Weik's possession after Herndon died in 1891. Before his death, Herndon assisted Weik in revising his Lincoln biography, but he did not live to see its release in 1892. Weik kept the Herndon papers, and used them in writing his own biography of the president, The Real Lincoln, which appeared in 1922.
Many other biographers sought to use the papers, but Weik routinely turned them down. Such was not the case with Albert Beveridge, who was granted unlimited access for his life of Lincoln. Horace White and Joseph Fort Newton also enjoyed the rare privilege of using the papers.
After Weik's death in 1929, the bulk of the collection was purchased by a consortium of dealers, changed hands a number of times, and eventually wound up at the Library of Congress. Lamon's duplicate set found their way to the fabulous collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. In these public repositories the papers have been available to all scholars since 1941.
Despite being publicly available for the past 57 years, the testimonials and letters collected by Herndon were never codified or edited for popular use--until now. In 1938, Emanuel Hertz published some of the material in The Hidden Lincoln From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon. Unfortunately, Hertz was not up to the task; he was selective as to what material he included and excluded, and that which did appear was poorly edited.
In the meantime, revisionist historians were taking a dim view on some of the material revealed in the Herndon source documents. This is particularly true with the assault on Herndon's claim of a love affair between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. A great deal of damage was done by James G. Randall when he published, in an appendix to the first two volumes of his biography, Lincoln the President, an essay titled "Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence."
In an effort to disprove the story that Lincoln had a love affair with Ann Rutledge, Randall set to work casting dispersions on Herndon's entire gathering of statements and recollections --reminiscences that were largely memories of happenings and events that occurred many years earlier. Randall preferred to base his conclusions on contemporary accounts, saying that time alters perceptions, and that using recollections recounted many years after the fact was shaky history at best.
This essay, and the concurrence of many historians for years thereafter, created an atmosphere where Herndon's material was used only with extreme caution, if it was used at all.
But in the late 1980s, historians like Wilson and Davis began taking a closer look at the Herndon material. After all, they reasoned, most all that we know about Lincoln's early life comes from reminiscences recorded many years after the fact. Contemporary evidence was simply non-existent when examining Lincoln's early years. New attention was being paid to the Herndon documents, and careful use of them began to reveal new insight into Lincoln and his early environs. Many of the essays contained in Douglas Wilson's new book, Lincoln Before Washington, were developed through a reexamination of the Herndon papers. John Y. Simon published a reexamination of the Ann Rutledge evidence, concluding that there was indeed good cause to conclude that there was more than a casual relationship between the two young citizens of New Salem.
And now, in order to make this important resource available to all researchers, Wilson and Davis have bought together the Herndon statements and letters, accurately transcribed from Herndon's often illegible handwriting. The book is well organized, with the entries arranged chronologically by the date Herndon obtained them. A meticulous index helps guide the reader, as does a "Register of Herndon's Informants," giving a brief biographical sketch of each contributor. Appearing as an appendix is a "Brief Outline of the Joseph Hanks Family," by Paul H. Verduin, which presents the complicated Hanks genealogy in a concise format. This reviewer was delighted to find that the editors and publisher used footnotes rather than end notes (at last, a book that can be read using but a single bookmark!) The whole is a polished package that is easy to use.
The true value of this contribution will take time to determine, because, as the old adage goes, the proof is in the pudding. And in this case, the pudding will be just how much the collection is utilized by future researchers. In my opinion, Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis have truly created a publishing event: they have rescued Herndon's data from obscurity and have at long last placed them into the hands of students and scholars where they will be used by Lincoln disciples for many years to come.