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David Herbert Donald


I was sad to learn this afternoon of the death of the historian David Herbert Donald. I saw an obituary at the NYT website. I have read only one of his books, but it’s a masterpiece of biography. Simply titled Lincoln, it is, yes a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The obituary mentions “that the historian Eric Foner, speaking on National Public Radio in February, put [it] at the top of the long list of Lincoln biographies.”

I read it shortly after it came out. What I’ve always remembered is how, as the book went on, the sense that I was reading about a different time disappeared, page by page, until I was immersed in the world of Lincoln. I could hardly bear to read the final few pages. I knew how it would end, but I hoped for the best. And in the last two pages, I felt I was there, beside Lincoln in the Peterson house as he died. Great book. Great story.

We visited Ford’s Theatre and the Peterson house one morning in August 1996, during our brief stay in DC as part of our cross-country train trip. (Seattle to Chicago to DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York.) Both are part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. It was a pretty full day, and a hot and humid one, during which we also toured the White House, headed up to Baltimore, and watched the Orioles play the Mariners at Camden Yards. The theatre just underwent a major renovation, re-opening on February 12 this year as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

As for Mr. Donald, the obituary indicates that he was still working at 88, “on a study of John Quincy Adams, beginning with his defeat by Andrew Jackson in the presidential election of 1828.” When I was around 15, I read several of Thomas Wolfe’s novels. I’m thinking I should read Donald’s biography of him. It is described in the obituary as follows:

Mr. Donald won his second Pulitzer, in 1988, for “Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe” (1987). He had been infatuated by the novelist since adolescence, certain, he wrote, “that Thomas Wolfe had told my life story.” Cool reassessment forced him to admit that Wolfe “wrote more bad prose than any other writer I can think of,” but drawing on a mass of letters, diaries and manuscripts, he developed a compelling portrait of Wolfe as an idiosyncratic genius consumed with his self-imposed mission to become “the bard of America,” in Mr. Donald’s phrase.

Categories: Biography, History
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