Lincoln's loyalists

Goodwin's study of his inner circle is revealing but ultimately unsatisfying

History

November 06, 2005|By MIKE PRIDE | MIKE PRIDE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

Doris Kearns Goodwin

Simon & Schuster / 944 pages

Doris Kearns Goodwin has borne her big new Lincoln book into a literary world divided into two camps: those who can't forgive her plagiarism and those too ready to forgive. In writing Team of Rivals she toiled under the burden of the controversy, and it shows.

Goodwin chose Abraham Lincoln as a subject years before the 2002 scandal that damaged her reputation. Long, readable explorations of the Kennedys and the Roosevelts had won her riches and renown as a popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. But how would she fare in a different century, with all her subjects beyond living memory? And what new could she bring to the crowded field of Lincoln studies? Her Massachusetts neighbor, David Herbert Donald, had written an authoritative Lincoln biography in 1995, and the great churn of Lincoln examinations never slows.

As her title and subtitle suggest, Goodwin's intention is to explore Lincoln's political genius through his relations with his inner circle. Her Lincoln wrested the 1860 Republican nomination from strong claimants and then melded these men, among others, into the team that carried the Union to victory in the Civil War. The two most prominent were Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, who became Lincoln's secretary of the treasury, and William Seward of New York, later secretary of state.

Goodwin's approach is promising. In the early going, her strengths as a biographer often come to the fore. By pausing to chronicle the personal tragedies visited upon Chase, who loved and lost three young wives, she makes even this stuffed shirt seem human. Through Seward's struggles she shows the tightrope between principle and pragmatism that even the worthiest of politicians had to walk during slavery's waning decades.

But Goodwin's fealty to her theme soon crumbles, and she veers about trying to cram into one fat book a full biography of Lincoln, a history of the Civil War, mini-biographies of Chase, Seward and Edward Bates, and sympathetic profiles of Mary Lincoln, Kate Chase (Salmon's devoted daughter and champion) and any other intriguing character who happens to show up.

In the thick of all this, Goodwin not only loses the thread of her tale but also ignores the historian's greatest challenge: to bring fresh interpretation to the past. No historian or biographer should be satisfied merely to master the material well enough to recount events while leaving the interpretation to others. Yet this is precisely what Goodwin does.

It could be that the plagiarism scandal led Goodwin to defer to other historians. There is no need to give a detailed recap of that scandal, but a synopsis is important to understanding the problems of this new book.

For The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Goodwin lifted many passages word-for-word, or nearly so, from a biography of JFK sister Kathleen Kennedy by Lynne McTaggart. She paid off McTaggart in a secret settlement that was exposed in 2002. A few weeks later, Goodwin acknowledged using close paraphrases from many other books in The Fitzgeralds. She asked Simon & Schuster to destroy existing copies of the Kennedy book.

In Team of Rivals, she guards against improper borrowing by lacing her text with references to the conclusions of contemporary historians. She even quotes novelists - Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Mann - on aspects of her characters' minds and motivation.

Often Goodwin interrupts her narrative for a quotation like this one: "James McPherson concludes that `Lincoln's diversion of McDowell's corps to chase Jackson was probably a strategic error - perhaps even the colossal blunder that McClellan considered it.'" McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian, is a good person to lean on in forming an opinion of the dispute between Lincoln and his chief general on troop strength during the 1862 Peninsula campaign. But Goodwin's habit of quoting others directly is the mark of a gun-shy amateur, not a seasoned historian.

This practice causes another problem. Powerful narrative history, which has been Goodwin's trademark, relies on putting the reader in the moment. All of us know how Lincoln's life and the Civil War turned out. Nevertheless, we come to the story expecting to be returned to the time, to see the story unfold as the characters lived it.

Of course, Goodwin needed to study modern scholarship on slavery, the war, Lincoln, Seward and the rest. But if the behavior of her characters or the turn of events called for a judgment, it should have been hers, with her sources in the footnotes. Instead, again and again she yanks readers out of Lincoln's time to quote a modern historian.

During the plagiarism scandal, the "why" question was left unanswered. Even taking Goodwin at her word that it was carelessness and not deception that led her to use the words of others as her own, why would a historian with a reputation for good writing do this?

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