Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, John Stauffer, Twelve Publishing, 448 pages,$30.00 (November 3, 2008)
Behind The Book: How Giants Came into Being by John Stauffer
"It’s often said that biographies reveal as much about their biographers as their subject. I plead guilty, for I was born in Lincoln (Nebraska) and fell in love with the Civil War era at age fourteen, which is when I began reading Lincoln and Douglass.
Moving was the central experience of my formative years, and literature and history offered alternative realities that could redeem the constant dislocations and confusions of my adolescence in the late 1970s. I hungered for characters I could identify with; and those from the Civil War era seemed larger than life, more heroic, able to give meaning and purpose to my present.
I was especially drawn to Douglass. I loved the way he wrote, I yearned to have something of his undaunted courage, and, strange as it may seem now, I wanted to be like him. After all, here was a slave—a total outsider—who stood up to the meanness around him at the risk of losing his life, and who found in books a way to “give tongue to his thoughts,” as he put it. A few years later, I realized that Lincoln too, had been an outsider, escaping the fighting and drinking of his backwoods communities through literature. They learned how to use words as weapons, and I desperately wanted a dependable weapon.
Years later, while in graduate school, I realized just how significant Douglass’s and Lincoln’s rise really was; they are the two preeminent self-made men in American history. (Other contenders like Ben Franklin began life with more comfort and status.) At the time, I was researching abolitionists, and had fallen in love with the wide array of wonderfully weird men and women, from blacks and whites to rich and poor, their wild utopian visions, and their extraordinary journeys through life. I wanted to know how they were able to remake themselves, what the costs of doing so were, and how self-transformation related to race and reform.
I addressed these themes in my first book, The Black Hearts of Men, and while writing it, discovered that Douglass and Lincoln ultimately became friends, despite the social and political gulfs separating them. I wanted to know how and why Douglass and Lincoln were able to come together as they did; and I decided to write about their self-making. Their friendship, I realized, depended in part on their having continually remade themselves.
In the past fifty years, scholars have largely disparaged the concept of self-making. They saw it as a term for Madison Avenue, not the Ivory Tower; it had the ring of an advertisement, not scholarship. Yet the concept of self-making, its rewards and costs, is central to the American experience, for it functions as a barometer of the ideals of freedom and equality of opportunity. I also felt that scholars had not adequately accounted for the significance of self-making in the personalities, politics, and decisions of Douglass and Lincoln. Too often, these men are written about as though they were born brilliant, a cut above other mortals. Too often, Lincoln has been characterized as America’s Christ, the redeemer president. The result is a static, romantic, mythic figure rather than a man born dirt poor living, striving, grappling in a distant past.
Giants began in 2005 as an essay on Douglass and Lincoln in the July 4th issue of Time Magazine. Initially, I planned to include the essay as part of a book on interracial friendship, but their story, I realized, was bigger than an essay or chapter. Giants was written at a propitious time. Not only is Lincoln’s bicentennial in 2009, which kept me on or near deadline; but Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope had become a bestseller and then of course Obama decided to run for president. Obama’s journey, like Douglass’s and Lincoln’s, has been nothing short of breathtaking. Perhaps it is not coincidental that he knows Douglass and Lincoln better than many scholars, has steeped himself in their writings, and has been inspired by them. While many journalists have noted the influence of Lincoln on Obama, none has shown how Douglass shaped his understanding of himself and his country.
Writing the book has thus given me a much better understanding of our own time. We carry the past within us and are unconsciously shaped by it, to paraphrase James Baldwin. In certain respects, the Civil War is not over; we are still fighting about the meanings of America on cultural and political fronts. Indeed, while steeped in the writings of Lincoln and Douglass, and sometimes dreaming of them, I found myself quoting Faulkner’s famous maxim, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” ―John Stauffer
CWL---John Stauffer's Meteor of War on John Brown and his Black Hearts Of Abolitionists on Brown's and other abolitionists' identification with slaves are both remarkable books in their freshness of perspective that rings true; the works set the militant and pacifist abolitionists within the climate of their times.
Stauffer's books as well as David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist depict John Brown, as someone who has has rationally placed his being into the hands of a perfectly loving, perfectly just God who hates the type of slavery that fractures families and human dignity. Brown, who is often seen as a madman or an incompetent, is revealed as more fully human and humane than most social critics of the era. Yet, his violence had an unforntuate place in the 19th century world, similar to the caning of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the U.S. Senate and the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas by border ruffians.