Lincoln historian dies

May 19, 2009 1:43:46 PM PDT
David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War and American South whose expertise on Abraham Lincoln brought him a wide general audience and reverence from his peers, has died. He was 88. Donald died of heart failure at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston on Sunday while awaiting heart surgery, said his wife, Aida.

"Of course, I am devastated," said his wife of 54 years. "He was a wonderful husband and father and he had a spectacular career as a teacher."

A professor emeritus at Harvard University, Donald won Pulitzers for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe. But his books on Lincoln became his legacy. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to the first George Bush summoned him for lectures and fellow scholars acknowledged his prominence, especially as Lincoln's bicentennial was celebrated this year.

"He was not only one of the best historians of our era but he was also one of the classiest and most generous scholars I have ever met," said Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "Team of Rivals," a best-selling Lincoln biography.

"When I began my work on Lincoln I was as green as any rookie, never having studied the 19th century, much less Lincoln, and yet he took me under his wing, invited me to his house to share the treasures of his incredible Lincoln library, suggested the best books to start with, and encouraged my decision to focus on the cabinet."

Donald's stature was so high among Lincoln experts that an award was even named after him, the started to follow him out of his office," Donald recalled during a 2005 interview with The Associated Press. "He said, 'You forget your hat.' And I said 'I don't wear a hat.' And he said, 'You teach in my school, you'll wear a hat.' So I didn't take the job."

Donald looked instead at graduate schools. His academic adviser at Millsaps was too busy to help, so Donald wrote his own recommendations and was accepted into the University of Illinois. Years later, he visited the school and had a chance to see his records.

"I looked into my admissions file and it said, 'Admit this man. He has excellent letters of recommendation,"' Donald told the AP.

Having grown up in a segregated town, he was interested in race relations and planned to study the post-Civil War era. But he also needed money and found a job working as a research assistant to a leading Lincoln scholar, James Garfield Randall.

For decades after Lincoln's death, writing on the president was dominated by nonhistorians, such as poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote a best-selling, lyrical and famously unreliable biography. Randall helped transform Lincoln studies into a professional discipline.

Donald's mentor encouraged him to write about Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon. "Lincoln's Herndon" began as a dissertation and became Donald's first book, published in 1948, with an introduction, ironically, from Sandburg.

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