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Dirty Jokes, Fiction, & Pop Culture: The Secret Life of Abe Lincoln

By BETH HARPAZ

Abraham Lincoln’s frontier upbringing is the stuff of legends. But a new book, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, shows that Lincoln was also influenced by the “bizarre, turbulent popular culture” of his day. The book, by Professor David S. Reynolds (The Graduate Center), has been praised by The New York Times and was listed among the best books of fall 2020 by O: The Oprah Magazine.

Lincoln “defined democracy,” Reynolds writes, “precisely because he had experienced a culture in all its dimensions—from high to low, sacred to profane, conservative to radical, sentimental to subversive.”

Despite little formal schooling, Lincoln memorized Shakespeare and pondered Euclidean geometry. At the same time, he enjoyed vulgar jokes and stories, and read fiction by Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other popular 19th century writers. His thinking was also shaped in part by reform movements of the day promoting issues like temperance and abolition.

I was surprised and thrilled by the fact that he was he was so incredibly involved in his culture,” Reynolds said at a book talk sponsored by the Leon Levy Center for Biography at The Graduate Center.

Lincoln even liked to compare himself to a celebrity from the era, Charles Blondin. Blondin was famous for crossing the gorge at Niagara Falls on a tightrope while undertaking outlandish stunts like pushing a wheelbarrow.

Reynolds said that when progressive critics faulted Lincoln for framing the war as an effort to save the nation, not as a war on slavery, Lincoln responded by invoking Blondin. If he were Blondin, “carrying the entire nation’s future in a wheelbarrow,” nobody would tell him to lean one way or the other: “No, you would allow me to just keep right in the middle here, because this is the best way to do it and preserve the union.”

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Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times
Penguin Random House, 2020

Work By

David S. Reynolds (Distinguished Professor, English, American Studies) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

The Graduate Center

Bonus Content

"David S. Reynolds on Abe Lincoln" (Leon Levy Center for Biography)
"What Would Lincoln Do?" (The Graduate Center)
"Searching for the Real Abraham Lincoln" (The New York Times Book Review)