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Lincoln observed from a score of scholarly vantages

Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays, by Don E. Fehrenbacher. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 364 pp. $37.50 Reading these essays is like attending an honors seminar on Abraham Lincoln. The student, or reader in this case, is presumed to have some grounding in Lincoln's life and times, and Dr. Fehrenbacher doesn't waste time imparting facts that can be gleaned from numerous biographies. Instead, the emeritus professor of history at Stanford University busies himself with peering at his subject from nearly a score of vantage points, beaming into Lincolnian nooks and crevices the light of his boundless curiosity and resourceful intellect.

All the essays have been previously published, in several cases more than 25 years ago, and thus the collection does not add to our store of Lincoln knowledge. What, then, is the rationale for the book?

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Convenience of access, for one thing. Most of the essays appeared in historical journals and will have been seen by few except scholars. All are comprehensible to nonspecialists, however, and deserve the wider reading this volume will make possible.

Also, assembled in this manner the essays play off of each other, producing unexpected harmonies and resonances - much as a writer's unrelated short stories can set off thematic vibrations when gathered between two covers. (The short-story analogy is apt for another reason as well: As concise treatments of sometimes large subjects, the essays have the compression and energy that characterize short fiction.)

And at least one of the early essays has taken on added interest from a subsequent event. In a recent speech at Tulane University, Attorney General Edwin Meese III stirred up a hornets' nest by suggesting that Supreme Court decisions are not always the last, unassailable word on the meaning of the Constitution. Lincoln made a similar case in an 1857 speech in Springfield, Ill., on the inflammatory Dred Scott decision: He argued that high court decisions on great constitutional issues become the law of the land only when they are, in Fehrenbacher's paraphrase, ``legitimated by judicial reiteration and public sanction over a period of time.''

Fehrenbacher's investigations in this collection range widely, from the extent to which Lincoln's love for Shakespeare's tragedies reflected his deepest attitudes toward power and political responsibility, to his views on ``Negroes.'' The scholar concludes that Lincoln abhorred slavery and apparently leaned toward granting freed slaves the franchise, but did not contemplate full social and civil equality for blacks in the 20th-century sense. In his discussion of charges by some modern blacks that Lincoln was a ``racist,'' Fehrenbacher notes the dilemma that ```relevance' makes the past worth studying and at the same time distorts it.''

Fehrenbacher brings his powers of synthesis and interpretation to bear with especially telling effect on the central paradox of Lincoln's career - his resort to extraconstitutional means in order, in his view, to defend the Constitution. He ultimately rejects the view that Lincoln was a ``tyrant,'' but only after giving the thesis - which has been espoused, not wantonly, by serious historians - its scholarly due.

The collection is about historiography as well as history; that is, Fehrenbacher is as interested in how historians ``know'' as in what they know.

For him, history is an endlessly fascinating and challenging game of detection, and he writes absorbingly on the ways in which historians often must try to fathom ``truth'' from tiny bits of fragmentary and dubious evidence, as a gumshoe attempts to solve a crime from a single smudged fingerprint or strand of hair. The volume also includes interesting overviews of the effects on Lincoln scholarship of psychohistory and social science methodologies.

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Fittingly, this historian-as-sleuth's most entertaining essay deals with an actual literary detective story. In 1928 a young California adventurer named Wilma Frances Minor charmed Ellery Sedgwick, the respected editor of The Atlantic Monthly, into printing three articles on Lincoln's fabled New Salem romance with Ann Rutledge. The articles were based on letters and diaries Minor claimed were handed down through her family. Scholars soon demolished the forgeries, however, to the deep chagrin of Sedgwick and several experts who had hastily authenticated the documents, including Carl Sandburg.

Reading this collection will reward anyone interested in Lincoln, in crisp exposition, or in the craft of history.

James Andrews edits American news at the Monitor.

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