It seems that all biographies of Lincoln start with his childhood made difficult by the death of his mother and his difficult relationship with his abusive, itinerant father. And then his emergence into a thoughtful, spiritual, and self-taught man, starting with the ministrations of his wonderful stepmother.
Jon Meacham draws a different sort of picture on all of this in And There Was Light by telling us what Lincoln read, and what he thought and prayed about throughout his entire life. He asks how did he reach the conclusions that he did about preservation of the Union, about slavery, and how to conduct the Civil War?
Why was he such a good lawyer? A good father and husband? What did he read as he floated down the Mississippi River? When did the issue of slavery become important to him?
What made him such a special human being? What made his mind tick and his heart pound?
Meacham doesn’t pretend to answer all those questions, but he gives enough information so that you, the reader, can begin to grasp the magnitude of the man. You can try to think as he must have thought and reach the conclusions he must have drawn.
You can become Lincoln in your own mind . . . sort of.
The bad news is that the book is at times a bit of a slog. Partly that is the nature of the material – it’s difficult to build a narrative around what is essentially a bibliography. But partly it is because Jon Meacham is not as good of a writer as others of his ilk.
But for diehard Lincoln aficionados, And There Was Light is a must read.