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Book Review: How Lincoln Learned to Read 


Young Abe Lincoln took no pleasure in pioneer life. He refused to hunt, was considered lazy, and he read constantly. He would one day assert that “we owe everything which distinguishes us from the savages” to literacy. His grandfather had been killed by a Shawnee while working a field, and he believed this family tragedy was why his own father was poor and illiterate. It is grim to contemplate Lincoln’s mind as blossoming out of this event—his ambition spurred by a severe contradistinction of himself from the people that his were eradicating. It may have puzzled the backwoods boy that the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, was becoming a national symbol of virtue, admired precisely because he was not civilized. But as an agile politician, a self-styled “natural man,” Lincoln managed to benefit from the public’s affection for noble savages.

Nyack resident Daniel Wolff’s How Lincoln Learned to Read takes a brisk, revisionist look at the educational training and formative experiences of twelve movers and shakers in US history. Plotting a line from Ben Franklin to Elvis, each chapter gives a vivid backstory, a concise portrait of its subject and his or her sociohistoric situation before their entrance on the world stage. We glimpse “Andy” Jackson sampling from the community distillery, checking that the mash is fermenting right; or Sojourner Truth, cussing and reveling on Kingston’s streets.

With a broad view of schooling, this book premises the question, “How do we learn what we need to know?” These short biographies nonetheless offer no facile solutions to educators or moralizing examples for students. The author quotes Emerson: “Who could have instructed Franklin? Every great man is unique.” Wolff suggests that the curriculum for the illiterate abolitionist Sojourner Truth was slavery itself: “I don’t read such small stuff as letters. I read men and nations.” He also sketches the Paiute memoirist Sarah Winnemucca, who, after being “civilized” by white education, comes to her mother’s opinion of the brutal settlers: “They are not people; they have no thoughts, no mind, no love.”

At one time, a chronology of profiles was a standard formula for elementary schoolbooks; the implicit lesson being that, when needed, great figures arise to clear a path for order and progress. There is no attempt to be so reassuring in Wolff’s updated turn on history writing. His ambitious personages resist being idealized simply because they reside within a social order based on slavery, genocide, and environmental destruction—they appear as almost freakish emanations of Euro-American expansion and excess. Wolff’s research has a solid feel, but his brilliant young subjects do not. In his compressed telling, they are nexuses between what predates them and the legends they later become. His captivating, anecdotal style conveys the depressing past so convincingly, the reader is not surprised to learn that Helen Keller’s earliest sentences were expressions of racial prejudice.

The classroom has long been considered the surest means to social improvement. Yet interestingly, nearly all of Wolff’s visionaries-to-be were indifferent students. Environmentalist Rachel Carson skipped school often, gaining more from streamside strolls with her mother. (Whereas NAACP founder W. E. B. Dubois prospered in Great Barrington’s integrated school system, but ultimately would advocate separatism.) Henry Ford had zero patience for schoolwork but cited the widely used McGuffey Reader as key to his own industrious character, and even turned the author’s birthplace into a museum. Although Ford would not have approved of Wolff’s study, the tycoon might have been disinclined to apply his famous precept—”History is bunk”—to it.

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