X-Post: [H-FedHist]: Claybourn on Dirck, 'Lincoln in Indiana'

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Brian R. Dirck.  Lincoln in Indiana. Carbondale Southern Illinois

University Press, 2017.  152 pp.  $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8093-3565-7.

 

Reviewed by Joshua A. Claybourn (Independent Scholar)

Published on H-FedHist (October, 2018)

Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

 

Claybourn on Dirck, _Lincoln in Indiana_

Books about Abraham Lincoln began springing up immediately after his

death and their proliferation seems to have continued unabated to

this day. About sixteen thousand books cover Mr. Lincoln. Every

aspect of his life and philosophy has been covered in depth at some

point by some writer. Why, then, do we need another one?

Despite the proliferation of Lincoln books, there remains a dearth of

modern material about his youth in Indiana. For generations now

biographers have downplayed the significance of Lincoln's Indiana

years (ages seven to twenty-one), partly because they regarded the

region as backward. Many took cues from William Herndon, Lincoln's

law partner and biographer, who dubbed Lincoln's Indiana neighborhood

"a stagnant, putrid pool," and Lincoln himself, who nurtured a

narrative of his rising from humble obscurity.

 

Lincoln's youth in Indiana, however, played a critical role in

developing the nineteenth president's character and philosophy. If

any area of Lincoln's life deserves more scholarship, it's his youth.

Into this fertile field jumped historian Brian Dirck, professor of

history at Anderson University, with _Lincoln in Indiana_. The book

is part of Southern Illinois University Press's Concise Lincoln

Library series, a project of about thirty volumes of compact books

intended to offer a quick review of numerous Lincoln topics at a

sophisticated level.

 

Dirck suggests that Lincoln's youth in Indiana was critical to

shaping how Lincoln "understood kinship, friendship, work and pay,

religion and education, parenting and childhood" (p. 3). Charting

this period of Lincoln's life chronologically, Dirck begins with

Lincoln's entry into Indiana in 1816 and ends with the family's

departure for Illinois in 1830. Throughout this journey Dirck

provides readers with a good overview of the Indiana frontier and its

early statehood history. He accurately summarizes the Lincoln farm,

its environment, and unforgiving life in Indiana at the time.

 

Dirck focuses especially on Lincoln's complex relationship with his

family. He explores the hardships faced by Abraham's sister and

mother, who both died in Indiana, and the significant impact they had

on Lincoln's outlook. Dirck excels most in placing Lincoln's youth in

the wider Indiana and American context, giving insightful perspective

on Indiana's unique frontier environment. When Lincoln and his family

eventually set out for Illinois in March 1830, he left Indiana

equipped with experiences that significantly shaped the legal and

political career before him.

 

Dirck describes an increasingly strained relationship between Abraham

and his father, Thomas. Father and son "shared little in common" and

by the time Abraham was in his early teens, "he exhibited at the very

least a certain coolness toward Thomas" (pp. 66-67). "The

relationship between Thomas and Abraham remained chilly until the

end" (p. 68).

 

Although this strained relationship between father and son is the

traditional view among Lincoln scholars, it has come under

considerable scrutiny in recent years. In 1942, Louis A. Warren

described what he thought was the unfair demonization of Thomas

Lincoln. More recently, Richard E. Hart, past president and current

board member of the Abraham Lincoln Association, has helped lead the

charge of Thomas Lincoln revisionists who argue that the father and

son duo remained respectful and loving of one another without any

hatred or disgust. Dirck never delves deeply into these competing

views and instead faithfully presents the conventional perspective

among Lincoln historians--a "troubled" relationship between father

and son.

 

Dirck relies on a mixture of primary, secondary, and modern source

material. As with any biography of Lincoln, William Herndon's

research conducted soon after Lincoln's death plays a central role.

Herndon interviewed and corresponded with scores of Abraham Lincoln's

friends and acquaintances in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and

Washington. Herndon's collection includes observations and opinions

of more than 250 people who knew Lincoln well before he became

mythologized. It remains one of the best sources for Lincoln's life

in Indiana. Nevertheless, Herndon's informants often relayed

inaccuracies and bias. Dirck maintains a "healthy respect for its

limitations" (p. 3) and appropriately consults other sources when

necessary to arrive at a history grounded on solid scholarship.

 

Although Dirck's _Lincoln in Indiana_ covers all of the highlights

and most significant aspects of Lincoln's youth, it remains a

relatively brief account. Many of the relatively minor stories never

get addressed. For instance, Dirck gives only a cursory review of

lawyer John Brackenridge's impact and never mentions attorney John

Pitcher. Because of the light treatment of these and other topics,

the book cannot serve as a definitive guide to Lincoln's youth, but

it nonetheless achieves its intended scope--a good, quick primer for

those interested in the subject. Despite the tremendous amount of

Lincoln material, Dirck identified a void in Lincoln material and

offers a much-needed modern, concise history of Lincoln's life in

Indiana.

 

Citation: Joshua A. Claybourn. Review of Dirck, Brian R., _Lincoln in Indiana_. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018.

URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53276

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  United States License.