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Lincoln's Biographer

Matt Schudel

David Herbert Donald, the distinguished biographer of Abraham Lincoln and historian of the Civil War, has died at the age of 88. Donald was a remarkable scholar who worked up to the end, hard at work on a biography of John Quincy Adams.

Donald was, in the overused and little-understood phrase, a gentleman and a scholar. He was also a brilliant prose stylist, and I treasure the two biographies (Lincoln and Thomas Wolfe) I have on my shelves. I never met him, but I enjoyed watching interviews with him on television, and he impressed me with his calmness, intelligence and grace. After 68 years of living in the North, he never fully lost the lilting accent of his Mississippi youth. (There are, surprisingly, quite a few clips of C-SPAN interviews with Donald on YouTube.)

Doris Kearns Goodwin said, "He was not only one of the best historians of our era but he was also one of the classiest and most generous scholars I have ever met." He opened his enormous private library at his home -- fittingly enough on Lincoln Road in Lincoln, Mass. -- and encouraged Goodwin to pursue her most recent historical subject, a group portrait of Lincoln's Cabinet. That book, "Team of Rivals," became a best seller and is said to have influenced Barack Obama's approach to staffing his Cabinet.

Who said history is boring and not relevant to our times?

By Matt Schudel  |  May 21, 2009; 7:39 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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