Richard Carwardine’s book is an entertaining and perceptive look at the role that humor played in the life of the 16th president. That Lincoln enjoyed telling jokes and stories is hardly new, as it was part of his appeal to his contemporaries. What Carwardine does is analyze the various ways in which he used humor and the insights it provides into his personality. Thanks to an extraordinarily retentive memory, Lincoln had a seemingly inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, tall tales, and jokes which he used throughout his career. Telling jokes drew people to Lincoln, making him a popular figure on the legal circuit and on the stump. How Lincoln used humor evolved over time, as he toned down the sometimes harsh satirical attacks of his youth to develop a broader and less insulting form by the time he reached the presidency. Carwardine sees Lincoln’s love of humor as a tool for coping with depression, though his frequent resort to it became a point of criticism during the Civil War as many – including members of his own administration – often interpreted it as a lack of seriousness about his responsibilities. Readers of Carwardine’s book have a more sophisticated understanding of the subject thanks to this discerning study, which with its frequent recounting of the jokes Lincoln employed is a pleasure to read.
Joseph Rogers Hollingsworth's book is an examination of the leadership of the Democratic Party from Grover Cleveland's triumph in 1892 through a succession of electoral defeats leading up their disastrous collapse in the 1904 election. Hollingsworth sees the inability of successive party leaders to make the logical and sensible judgments that would have bridged the gap between the conservative and liberal wings of the party as the reason for this failure. The genesis for this lay in Cleveland's reelection; though an honest and courageous political leader, Hollingsworth argues that the experiences of his career hardened into dogma his belief that principles rather than political parties were the indispensable component of good government. As a result, when dealing with the currency, his commitment to the gold standard rather than bimetallism alienated the silver Democrats and labor, prohibiting compromise and fracturing the party.
Cleveland's dogmatism opened the way for William Jennings Bryan's emergence as the party's leader in 1896. Yet Bryan's own intellectual inflexibility in favor of silver coinage prevented the party from adopting a more accommodating stance on the issue, alienating the gold Democrats and ensuring the party's disorganization and distrust by voters nationally. Bryan's direction on imperialism issues only exacerbated these problems; though an anti-imperialist, his support for a treaty in which the U.S. annexed the Philippines hobbled efforts to establish a clear stance on the issue. The situation reached its nadir with the 1904 election; while the gold Democrats regained control of their party, their poor campaign against an popular incumbent led to an overwhelming defeat in the polls. It was only then, Hollingsworth, concludes, that the party was able finally to move past the divisive silver issue and reestablish a unity that would return them to national power.
Though dated, Hollingsworth's book remains a useful study of the Democratic Party during an era of change in party politics. Though his analysis is insufficient in itself, it does help explain how American politics moved from an era of relative national parity between Democrats and Republicans to one of Republican political dominance. It also gives weight to Will Rogers' famous quip about how, as a Democrat, he belonged to no organized political party. Given that he came of political age during this period, it's easy to see how the statement could have been born from this experience.
In this book Michael Denning studies the working class of 19th and early 20th century America through an unusual medium – the books they read. He views young factory workers of both genders as the main audience of the mass-produced “dime novels” of the era, the action-adventure and rags-to-riches tales in which appealed to readers not as escapism but for the allegories they offered for their own often difficult lives. In this respect, he sees the consumption of the novels not as an act of escapism but as a way of mitigating the capitalist injustice which pervaded their readers’ lives. Though his own writing can be dense, Denning’s explanation of the production process of dime novels and his insights into their audience make this a valuable book for anyone interested in learning about the development of mass culture in Gilded Age and Progressive-era America.