"David Herbert Donald, Writer on Lincoln, Dies at 88
David Herbert Donald, a leading American historian of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War who won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of the abolitionist statesman Charles Sumner and the novelist Thomas Wolfe, died Sunday in Boston. He was 88 and lived in Lincoln, Mass.; Wellfleet, Mass.; and Key West, Fla.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Aida D. Donald.
Mr. Donald, a native of Mississippi, first made his mark with “Lincoln’s Herndon” (1948), a study of Lincoln’s law partner and early biographer, William Henry Herndon. He went on to write and edit numerous histories of the Civil War, which were praised as much for their narrative vigor and elegance of style as for their insights into the period.
“Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War” (1960), the first volume in his magisterial biography of Sumner, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1961. “Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man” followed in 1970. Mr. Donald made the case for Sumner, often dismissed as a seething radical and crank, as an authoritative moral voice on the issue of rights for black Americans, more often right than wrong, and well out in front of his party and its leader, Lincoln.
Mr. Donald won his second Pulitzer, in 1988, for “Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe” (1987). He had been infatuated by the novelist since adolescence, certain, he wrote, “that Thomas Wolfe had told my life story.” Cool reassessment forced him to admit that Wolfe “wrote more bad prose than any other writer I can think of,” but drawing on a mass of letters, diaries and manuscripts, he developed a compelling portrait of Wolfe as an idiosyncratic genius consumed with his self-imposed mission to become “the bard of America,” in Mr. Donald’s phrase.
In 1995 he published “Lincoln,” a book that the historian Eric Foner, speaking on National Public Radio in February, put at the top of the long list of Lincoln biographies. In “Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era” (1956), Mr. Donald caused a stir by presenting his subject unsentimentally, as “an astute and dexterous operator of the political machine." In “Lincoln,” a similarly demythifying exercise, he tried to elucidate the life by presenting events and decisions from the inside out, as Lincoln saw them.
“It is the most balanced of the biographies out there,” Mr. Foner said in a telephone interview Monday. “It is not a work of hero worship, nor does it have a prosecutorial brief. He presents Lincoln as a rather passive figure, not at all in charge of the forces raging around him, which is quite accurate.”
Mr. Donald was born in Goodman, Miss., where his father was a farmer and his mother a teacher. After graduating from Millsaps College in Jackson, he earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Illinois in 1942 and a doctorate in 1946, studying under the eminent Civil War scholar James G. Randall.
He taught at Columbia and Smith College before being offered a full professorship at Columbia in 1957. He went on to teach at Princeton and Johns Hopkins, and in 1973 joined the history department at Harvard, where he was the Charles Warren professor of American history until his retirement in 1991.
Mr. Donald’s other books on Lincoln include “Inside Lincoln’s Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase” (1954), of which he was the editor, and “ ‘We Are Lincoln Men’: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends” (2004).
Weaving in a wealth of new historical material, he revised his mentor James G. Randall’s classic work, “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” first published in 1937 and reissued in 1961. The section of the new edition dealing with the war was brought out in a separate volume, “The Divided Union” (1961).
As a historian, Mr. Donald maintained an unusual openness to new methods and arguments. In “The Politics of Reconstruction, 1863-1867” (1965), he borrowed statistical methods from the social sciences to analyze the voting records of Republican congressmen. Examining the data, he argued that positions on issues like voting rights for blacks and confiscation of Southern property depended less on philosophy than on the safety of the seat of the congressman casting the vote.
In his Sumner biography, many historians noted a distinct change in tone between the first and second volumes, as the wrenching events of the civil rights struggle in the South moved Mr. Donald toward a more positive assessment of Sumner’s radicalism. “The second volume gives Sumner much more credit for his leadership,” Mr. Foner said. “The two volumes really could be about two different people, and this reflects his receptivity to changes in historical perception that grew out of the civil rights movement.”
In addition to his wife, who is also a historian, Mr. Donald is survived by a son, Bruce Randall Donald, of Chapel Hill, N.C.
At his death Mr. Donald was working on a study of John Quincy Adams, beginning with his defeat by Andrew Jackson in the presidential election of 1828."