Book Review: Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln

Title: Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
Author: John Stauffer
Publisher: Twelve (Hatchett Book Group)

Price: $30.00
ISBN: 13-0978-0-446-58009-0
Pages: 432
Abraham Lincoln has been written about extensively and ranks as one of the most prolifically written about subjects in print. Frederick Douglass is a much lesser written about historical figure. This book provides an interesting structure by providing a parallel framework in which the lives of these two individuals are recounted in individual chapters. This volume by John Stauffer (chair of the history of American civilization and professor of English at Harvard University) is written in a fluid and compelling manner that makes for an interesting and illuminating reading experience.

Abraham Lincoln’s life story is particularly well known and inspiring and is the fabric of the American story and dream personified. His rise from humble origins in the American heartland, growing up on a farm, becoming a workman and store clerk to become a self-educated, highly successful attorney representing the largest and most profitable clients would be an American success story in itself. But he compounded these facts by entering a career in politics and rising to the American presidency– the highest office in the land where he provided critical political and military leadership in preserving the union.

Similarly inspiring and perhaps of biblical proportions are the facts of Frederick Douglass’ life. Born into the bondage of slavery, he escaped the brutality of a slave’s life in the South to become an educated and respected publisher as well as public personage and orator. He became a famed abolitionist, orator, and writer. His most famous work is the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

The primary weakness of this book is the fact that there were only a few meetings between Lincoln and Douglass. The stories of their lives are fascinating. Lincoln had a profound impact on the course of history in his political and military leadership role as President. However, the fact that there were few recorded meetings hinders the joining of the two figures in one volume, but nonetheless it is clear that the events of that time period joined the personal and public stories of both Lincoln and Douglass in an uncommon and perhaps uniquely American way.

Lincoln’s life was cut all too short by the assassin John Wilkes Boothe. His place in history was ensured prior to his assassination, but as a result he became an almost sainted figure. The Shakespearean lines with which Robert Kennedy paid tribute to his slain brother President John Fitzgerald Kennedy could equally apply to Lincoln: “When he shall die take him and cut him out into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.” This volume shines a different type of light on the lives of these two important American citizens and perhaps is most significant in highlighting and more highly publicizing Douglass’ life by linking him more closely with Lincoln.

This book is recommended for public and academic libraries as well as special libraries with an orientation focusing on American history.

Theodore Pollack, Sr. Law Librarian, NY County Public Access Law Library

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