Thursday, 3 September 2009


My obituary of the historian David H Donald is in today's Guardian, you can find it here. Because it was trimmed somewhat, particularly in its lede, here's my original copy:

As the leader most crucial to America's psyche, Abraham Lincoln's life has been open to constant re-interpretation; all things to all people, he has been seen as everything from hallowed genius to demented fanatic. 2009, which marked Lincoln's bicentennial (he was born the same day as Charles Darwin), saw also the inauguration of Barack Obama, often compared to his Illinois predecessor, and consciously encouraging such comparisons by choosing Lincoln as a model. These factors brought new renown for historian David Herbert Donald, who has died aged 88. Donald's writing about Lincoln spanned nearly 50 years, and his 1995 biography, titled simply 'Lincoln', is considered the best, and certainly most balanced, account of the president's life. The book gained a new audience after receiving lavish praise from the historian Eric Foner, part of the Lincoln bicentennial programme on America's National Public Radio. Donald's Lincoln is a determined man struggling to find the inner reserves to cope with immense crises always threatening to overcome him; the parallels with the current president were there to be made.

Ironically, though Donald twice won the Pulitzer Prize, neither award honoured his work on Lincoln. His first Pulitzer came in 1961 for the opening part of his two-volume biography of the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, best-remembered today for receiving a savage beating on the floor of the US Senate during a debate on slavery. Covering Sumner's career up to the Civil War, Donald presented him as a radical whose Republican leadership placed the newly-elected Lincoln in an almost untenable position. By the time the second volume was published in 1970, by which time Donald had been influenced by changes brought on by the civil rights movement, his Sumner was more of a visionary moral leader.

He won his second Pulitzer for Look Homeward, his 1987 biography of the novelist Thomas Wolfe. It was a more personal project because, as Donald put it, 'Wolfe told my story'. Like Wolfe, Donald was a southerner transplanted to the world of Yankee intellectuals, and spent his career examining the roots and the effects of the great divide between North and South. Donald also considered himself a frustrated novelist, saying biographies ought to 'let the story tell itself and have it as ambiguous, as ambivalent as a modern novel.'

Donald was born on a farm in Goodman, Mississippi, where his mother was also a teacher. He graduated from Millsaps College, in Jackson Mississippi, then received his PhD in history in 1946 from the University of Illinois, studying under the Civil War scholar James G. Randall. He began teaching at Columbia, in New York, and in 1947 published his first book, 'Lincoln Reconsidered', a collection of essays, which was followed in 1948 by 'Lincoln's Herndon', with an introduction by the poet Carl Sandburg, a study of Lincoln's Illinois law partner and early biographer. Although he claimed he originally found Lincoln a tedious subject, Donald's studies of Lincoln's relationships to people close to him would lead him to conclude Lincoln was ambitious, politically shrewd, and 'much more sensitive and human than I had thought before'.

In 1954 Donald edited 'Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon Chase', and during the Civil War centennial, which began in 1961, edited 'Why The North Won The Civil War', and a revised edition of his Lincoln essays. He also revised his mentor Randall's key 1937 study 'The Civil War And Reconstruction', and followed with his own 'The Politics Of Reconstruction' (1965), breaking ground by using statistical analysis to detail how the relative safety of a Congressional seat was the prime determinant in how fiercely politicians pursued radical policies.

Donald also taught at Smith, Princeton and Johns Hopkins before joining Harvard as Charles Warren Professor of History in 1973, a post he held until assuming the emeritus title in 1991. He was Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford and also taught at University College London. In all he wrote or edited 30 books, the last of which, 'We Are Lincoln Men', a study of the president's friendships, appeared in 2004. When he died, of heart failure, he was working on a study of John Quincy Adams' life after his defeat in the 1828 presidential election.
He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Aida DiPace Donald, former editor of Harvard University Press, and a son.

David Herbert Donald, historian and biographer
born 1 October 1920 Goodman, Mississippi
died 17 May 2009 Boston, Massachusetts

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