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Author Interview
The Young Eagle:
The Rise of Abraham Lincoln

Kenneth J. Winkle, author
The Young Eagle: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln
Taylor Trade Publishing, February 2001
ISBN 0-87833-255-3, $28.95

In 1996, we heard Kenneth Winkle's ground-breaking approach to Lincoln studies at a symposium in Springfield, Illinois. There he offered a paper which demonstrated his community-based, data-driven approach to the topic, "Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made Man." Now that his book is available, we thought you would enjoy hearing about this remarkable study.

The book, written as a biography, traces the arrival of the first American Lincoln ancestors in 1637 to President-elect Lincoln's departure for Washington in 1861. Along the way, Winkle draws on the latest interpretative and methodological advances in historical scholarship to reveal Lincoln's life. His research challenges some long-held assumptions, such as Lincoln's humble beginnings and his attitudes towards racism and slavery.

Once you read Winkle's interpretation of Lincoln's childhood, New Salem days, romances, and political life, you may look at these familiar scenes from an entirely different angle. One of the book's most distinctive aspects is the profiling of Lincoln's contemporaries, which compares their lives to Lincoln's. For example, Winkle's research shows that in 1840 Lincoln's law career put him among only 1.9% of his community classed as "professional" workers -- just one example of his rapid rise as a "self-made man."

Kenneth Winkle is in the History Department at the University of Nebraska, where he has been a faculty member since 1987. He specializes in community history, quantitative methods, and family history, so he brings a broad, contextually diverse background to bear on Lincoln's life. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Politics of Community: Migration and Politics in Antebellum Ohio and wrote an introduction to the reprint of Ida Tarbell's Abraham Lincoln and His Ancestors in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

ALO: Welcome to Abraham Lincoln Online -- thanks for sharing the some highlights of your study, and thanks for the enormous contribution you have made to the study of Lincoln's life.

Kenneth Winkle: Thank you for your interest in my book. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

ALO: Tell us about your book title. Did Joshua Speed inspire it?

Kenneth Winkle: Yes, he did. Speed was Lincoln's best friend, you know, and knew him better than anyone, except his wife, Mary. Many years after Lincoln's death, Speed marveled at Lincoln's career and likened him to a young eagle soaring upward throughout his life all the way to the heavens.

ALO: Would you say Speed identified the two parallel forces in Lincoln's life?

Kenneth Winkle: In the sense that no one but Lincoln could have made that remarkable rise, yes. But as he soared above, a lot of breezes, so to speak, all kinds of social, cultural, and political changes, pushed him on his way. On one hand, he was the quintessential self-made man; on the other, his family and community, and all the social and political currents of his time, played a big part in shaping his character, making him the great man that he was, and finally allowing him to soar.

ALO: So it's not correct to assume that Lincoln's self-improvement efforts alone took him to the top?

Kenneth Winkle: Right. Biographers frequently cite Lincoln's unlikely, meteoric rise as a sign of his extraordinary personal qualities, whether intelligence, persistence, humanity, eloquence, or ambition. He had all those things, absolutely. But that is only half the story, and it considers Lincoln in isolation, as a heroic individual. My book also looks at the world that he lived in.

ALO: Did Lincoln do anything to contribute to our perception of him as a purely self-made man?

Kenneth Winkle: He sure did. For instance, he disparaged his own parentage and childhood rather than giving them any credit for preparing him for life. He actually exaggerated his humble origins to accentuate his own rise from obscurity to distinction. During his very first campaign for public office, he declared that "I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life." Three decades later, he was still highlighting his modest beginnings as a way of emphasizing his own self-improvement but also his ability to identify with and represent ordinary people, which was very genuine.

ALO: Have you devoted your book to correcting some of the myths surrounding Lincoln's family and youth?

Kenneth Winkle: Yes, that's an important part of the story. Lincoln actually started the "log cabin myth" that has led many Americans to give his family little credit for providing him a good start in life. In addition to his own extraordinary talents, Lincoln had a lot of help from family, friends, and his community in achieving such great success. His early life is such a fabulous success story that it deserves a detailed dissection. My book examines Lincoln's experiences within a broad social and cultural context, compares him to his contemporaries, and identifies the various disadvantages he overcame and how he overcame them. I've tried to provide a look at all the factors that contributed to Lincoln's life and remarkable success.

ALO: How long did it take you to pull together all the resources for this book?

Kenneth Winkle: Well, I didn't just write a biography of Lincoln. I also looked at all of the ordinary people who lived and worked around Lincoln and helped to shape his life in that way. So, from start to finish, I spent about ten years researching and writing The Young Eagle. During that time, I received quite a bit of encouragement and cooperation from other historians and librarians. I have noted them on my acknowledgments page.

ALO: How did you get into this study in the first place?

Kenneth Winkle: My background in family and community history is responsible in part. I was interested in Lincoln's family and social background. I started out by studying New Salem and Springfield, Illinois. The more I learned about those communities that Lincoln lived in, the more I respected and admired him. Lincoln is such an important and intriguing historical figure that the book turned into a biography before I knew it.

ALO: Where can readers obtain your book?

Kenneth Winkle: It is available in the U.S. from many bookstores and online, or by calling the publisher at 1-800-275-8188.

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