Firelight Publishing

New Review - April 2013

NEW REVIEW IN THE JOURNAL OF ILLINOIS HISTORY (Published by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)

Abraham Lincoln Traveled This Way: The America Lincoln Knew
By ROBERT SHAW [photographs] and MICHAEL BURLINGAME [narrative]. Heyworth, Illinois: Firelight Publishing, 2011.
Pp. 276. $36

In Edwin Markham’s poem, “Lincoln: Man of the People,” the great man is formed out of the “tried clay of the common road.” Shaw and Burlingame’s book proves that Lincoln was indeed made from the places he went. Theirs is an exciting, unique addition to the literature. The book is a collaboration between a masterful photographer and a preeminent Lincoln scholar, one that combines historical information with powerful images. Each page-spread treats a specific site associated with Lincoln and features lush photographs, relevant biography, as well as Lincoln’s own words. Readers can choose to leaf through the images or study them in relation to the text; this volume rewards all levels of interest. Even the brief captions to the photographs contain intriguing information.
The sites are arranged in chronological order, which makes it possible to follow Lincoln’s movements from birth to grave. Shaw’s preface includes surprising notions, such as the fact that in 1831 New Salem and Chicago had the same population, or that no bridges existed in Illinois when the Lincolns arrived. Burlingame has largely borrowed the historical information that accompanies the photographs from his own Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008), the most authoritative and exhaustive biography to date. He has burnished and adjusted his excerpts to fit them tightly to the photographs. If one ever longed for an illustrated version of Burlingame’s “Green Monster” (the affectionate nickname for his biography, referring to its girth and the color of its binding), this book helps answer that need. Admirably, Burlingame’s writing is such that he never loses track of Lincoln the person amidst the historical data.
The handsomeness of this volume belies its historical authority. Printed on heavy paper, it features an attractive matte dustcover over a brown binding. Shaw himself made all the decisions about its production. But much credit must go to the underwriter, John Warner IV, of Clinton, Illinois whose great great-grandfather was Clifton H. Moore, a lawyer with whom Lincoln worked. An appendix lists the seventy historic sites treated here according to their state and type of designation. Historical maps of the country and of Illinois are attractively reproduced as well. Burlingame’s epilogue relates poignant and seldom-told accounts of Lincoln reaching out to African Americans. These are especially apt in light of Spielberg’s recent film.
The combination of photographs with historical information graphically brings to life Lincoln’s two decades of travel along Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit. Included here are pictures of the rivers he had to cross as well as the fords he likely used; these represent a genuine historical contribution. As for the Civil War, we read of how Lincoln’s sad smile energized troops at Antietam, and how he shook hands with wounded Confederates.
Shaw’s photographs are thoughtful and skillfully shot. He has tried to capture sites during the time of year Lincoln visited them. And Shaw has gone to great lengths to avoid including modern people, cars, and other details that might pull the viewer back into the twenty-first century. Although Lincoln was pragmatic about resources and improvements, he too was sensitive to the beauty of the American landscape. “Niagara Falls!” he exclaims, “It’s power to excite reflection, and emotion, is its great charm” (p. 158). Abraham Lincoln Traveled This Way reminds us that much of Lincoln’s life occurred between destinations, outdoors, in nature. Thankfully, many of those landscapes can still be experienced today. Shaw’s loving photographs are powerful arguments for their preservation.
With so many Lincoln sites documented here, it hardly seems fair to point out omissions. Still, one might have included the Shiloh (Thomas Lincoln) Cemetery outside of Lerna, Illinois, where Lincoln visited his father’s grave, or Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where Lincoln raised a flag on his way to Washington in 1861. A second edition of Shaw and Burlingame’s book—happily there are rumors of one—would include even more Lincoln sites, and treated in the same spectacular and rigorous way as here.
DePaul University