This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Timely reading: Comments on Giants, the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer

How I came to read the book

I felt like a kid eating at the grown-up table; I probably wouldn't have gravitated to these choices of nourishment if I were sitting at the little table with spaghettios in front of me.

I had a list of books to choose from and none of them were instantly striking me. Still one did tempt my intellectual side (or what there is of it). Giants, the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln seemed interesting but scholarly. But did I dare take on the challenge of reviewing a scholarly book? Would it be the readable kind or the type that requires a magnifying glass, intellectual appetite of an academic with an 800 pound brain, and infinite patience?

It was too tempting, so I took a chance.

My little 3 pound brain needn't have worried. As soon as I received the 432 page work in the mail and gave it a pre-read cursory glance I was heartened. The warm egg nog colored pages were filled with print I could ably read and the writing style was conversational. Preliminary indicators were positive; this was promising.

The reading experience

In Giants, author John Stauffer draws upon similarities in the lives of the abolitionist former slave Federick Douglass and the Civil War-era president Abraham Lincoln to create a framework on which this dual biography can be written. The second paragraph of the preface lists some stunning comparisons between the two individuals' lives. Stauffer writes,

"They learned to read and re-make themselves from the same core set of books: the Bible; Shakespeare; Lord Byron; Robert Burns; Aesop's Fables; and The Columbian Orator, a popular anthology of speeches for boys. They avoided tobacco and alcohol at a time when people regularly chewed and drank on the job....And they were strapping men, at least a half foot taller on average than their peers, when physical prowess could determine success or failure, even life or death." (Giants, by John Stauffer, page xi)

Stauffer doesn't bring up these shared traits just to list coincidences. He continues within the book to describe how the physical power of these men did, indeed, help them attain power in the forms of intellect and social influence. And Stauffer describes the strength that an excellent skill at orating was at this time in history, as well as the severe disadvantage that was bad speech-making.

Readers are taken on a birth-to-death journey with both men, whose tales are interwoven throughout. And, boy, is it ever more complicated than we were taught in grammar school. Neither was a saint, neither was an innocent in romance, neither's view on abolition remained static through their lives. In Lincoln's case, he became more radical, seeming to grow more willing to stand for abolition as he neared the end of his life - probably no coincidence. As for Douglass, he lived a long life, became quite wealthy and more conservative in his activist views.

If Giants had been available to read one month ago (it's publication date was November 3 - election eve) and immediately read, it would have been a different reading experience. Back then, one month ago, the question was still being asked if an African-American could be elected president. In the course of one day, the nation passed a milestone that future historians will be writing about. So when on page 285 a scene is described of Frederick Douglass sitting in a room with a white man, a judge, while both awaited their respective meetings with President Lincoln, and the judge, "outraged at having to share the same space with a black man," snidely makes a comment by asking Douglass, "Are you the President?" readers post November 4 know something as fact: that today this question cannot be used in the same demeaning manner the judge meant back in 1863. It kind of makes you wish you could hoist that judge out of his nineteenth and into this twenty-first century.

Giants is an engaging read. It explains the drawn out and painstakingly slow pace of the abolition of slavery and the complex personalities behind the movement - some personalities wholeheartedly behind a fight for equality and some with provisos. It is amply supplemented with endnotes and footnotes, populated with interesting major and minor players, and contains nearly enough photographs to satisfy readers.

I'm glad I didn't choose the spaghettios.

Thanks to Hachette for this complementary review copy.

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