Professor’s Book Takes Insight From What Lincoln Read

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Historians often recount President Abraham Lincoln’s avid love of learning. The image of a young Lincoln reading late into the night by the dying embers of the fireplace has become an iconic part of Lincoln lore.

Illinois Wesleyan University faculty member Robert Bray is shedding new light on that firelight image of Lincoln. Bray, who is the R. Forrest Colwell Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan, examines the books Lincoln read, and how those books reflect his thoughts and influences in Reading with Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).

“I like to think of it as looking over Lincoln’s shoulder while he’s reading,” said Bray, who tied the materials Lincoln read to his speeches, writing and political policies.

Bray delved into the world of Lincoln to research the book, reviewing everything from letters he composed for illiterate friends, to books, pamphlets, poetry, plays and essays to which Lincoln was exposed.  He spent a year compiling and reviewing materials in places such as the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and Huntington Library in Pasadena, Calif. “I tried to find the editions that would have been available to him,” said Bray. “Not all editions are the same. You find some very interesting things in older editions that are not reflected in contemporary ones.”

Lincoln scholars are praising Bray’s book. According to William Lee Miller, author of President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, “Robert Bray has not only discovered every book and text and poem and treatise and humorous sketch and Shakespeare play that Lincoln read; he has also read them himself, and he takes the reader inside those readings—and therefore inside Lincoln’s mind—in this excellent book.”