I am reading this morning a wonderful little book: “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays, by Benjamin Thomas. It is a collection of essays by Thomas, one of the great Lincoln biographers, edited and published after his death by another great Lincoln biographer, Michael Burlingame.
One of the essays deals with yet another Lincoln biographer: Ida M. Tarbell. Born in the Pennsylvania oil country, Tarbell attended Allegheny College, and lived as a journalist and author. McClure’s magazine assigned her the task of finding bits and pieces about Lincoln; these turned into a book, The Early Life of Abraham Lincoln, and then a two-volume life of Lincoln, published in 1900. Tarbell was working and writing as the last of those who knew Lincoln personally were dying off; she was the first of those who attempted to assess and describe Lincoln more from the documents than from memories.
Here is Thomas, speaking in 1948 at Allegheny College, about Tarbell’s role:
“Primarily Miss Tarbell was a popularizer and with the passing years her books are becoming outmoded. But this is not to detract from what she did. A popularizer is an interpreter–one who aids others in understanding. That was her role. ‘I have never had illusions about the value of my individual contribution!’ she asserted in her Autobiography. ‘I realized early that what a man or a woman does is suilt on what those who have gone before have done, that its real value depends on making the matter in hand a little clearer, and a little sounder for those who come after. Nobody begins or ends anything.'”
“This is especially true of Lincoln biography. Not yet has anyone been able to give us a completely satisfactory life of Lincoln, rounded, sufficient, definitive. Our portrait of Lincoln is a composite, touched by many brushes, the joint product of many different draughtsmen whose combined efforts have given us an essentially faithful portrait of a subject so difficult to comprehend that no one artist could have done the job alone, although each has made some brush marks that endure. Whatever of value each searcher has contributed has been incorporated in the work of those who followed, so that the process has been like the building of an edifice.”
I feel very much the same way about my book on Seward. My book is built on the work of those who have gone before, not only biographers of Seward, like Bancroft and Van Deusen, but also other authors, including biographers of Lincoln like Thomas and Burlingame. If I have done well, I have corrected some errors in prior works, uncovered some new angles of Seward’s life, told his life in a way that is both truthful and readable. But I have no illusion that I am writing the last word about Seward. Indeed I hope that someone will come along and build on my work, finding its flaws and errors, writing a new and better life of Seward.