Dale Carnegie is known mostly for his courses in self-improvement, salesmanship and public speaking. His most famous book was the 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People, a bestseller that remains popular today. Yet four years before his most popular book, he wrote what many consider one of the greatest books on the life of Abraham Lincoln titled Lincoln the Unknown. Carneigie recalls the origin of the book when he was in London in the Introduction to the book below.
One spring day, some years ago, I was breakfasting in the Hotel Dysart, London; and, as usual, I was trying to winnow a bit of American news from the columns of the Morning Post. Ordinarily I found none, but on that fortunate morning I made a strike rich and unexpected.
The late T. P. O’Connor, reputed “Father of the House of Commons,” conducted in those days a column in the Morning Post entitled “Men and Memories.” On that particular morning, and for several mornings following, “Tay Pay’s” column was devoted to Abraham Lincoln—not to his political activities but to the personal side of his career: to his sorrows, his repeated failures, his poverty, his great love for Ann Rutledge, and his tragic marriage to Mary Todd.
I read the series with profound interest—and surprise. I had spent the first twenty years of my life in the Middle West, not far from the Lincoln country; and, in addition to that, I had always been keenly interested in United States history. I should have said that of course I knew Lincoln’s life-story; but I soon discovered that I didn’t. The fact is that I, an American, had had to come to London and read a series of articles written by an Irishman, in an English newspaper, before I realized that the story of Lincoln’s career was one of the most fascinating tales in all the annals of mankind. Was this lamentable ignorance peculiar to me? I wondered.
But I didn’t wonder long, for I soon discussed the subject with a number of my fellow-countrymen, and I discovered that they were in the same boat, that about all they knew about Lincoln was this: that he had been born in a log cabin, had walked miles to borrow books and then read them at night, stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace; that he split rails, became a lawyer, told funny stories, said that a man’s legs ought to be long enough to reach the ground, was called “Honest Abe,” debated with Judge Douglas, was elected President of the United States, wore a silk hat, freed the slaves, spoke at Gettysburg, declared that he wished he knew what brand of whisky Grant drank so he could send a barrel of it to his other generals, and was shot by Booth in a theater in Washington.
Aroused by these articles in the Morning Post, I went over to the British Museum library and read a number of Lincoln books; and the more I read, the more fascinated I became. Finally I caught on fire and I determined to write a book about Lincoln, myself. I knew that I had not the urge, temperament, training, or ability necessary to produce a learned treatise for the benefit of scholars and historians. Besides, I felt there was little need for another book of that kind, for many excellent ones are already in existence. However, after reading many Lincoln volumes, I did feel that there was a genuine need for a short biography that would tell the most interesting facts about his career briefly and tersely for the average busy and hurried citizen of to-day. I have tried to write such a book.
I began the work in Europe, and labored over it for a year there and then for two years in New York. Finally I tore up all that I had written and tossed it into the wastebasket. I then went out to Illinois, to write of Lincoln on the very ground where he himself had dreamed and toiled. For months I lived among people whose fathers had helped Lincoln survey land and build fences and drive hogs to market. For months I delved among old books and letters and speeches and half-forgotten newspapers and musty court records, trying to understand Lincoln.
I spent one summer in the little town of Petersburg. I went there because it is only a mile away from the restored village of New Salem, where Lincoln spent the happiest and most formative years of his life. There he ran a mill and a grocery store, studied law, worked as a blacksmith, refereed cock-fights and horse-races, fell in love, and had his heart broken.
Even in the heydey of its glory New Salem never had more than a hundred inhabitants, and its entire existence covered a span of about ten years. Shortly after Lincoln left the village it was abandoned; bats and swallows nested in the decaying cabins, and for more than half a century cows grazed over the spot.
A few years ago, however, the State of Illinois secured the site, made it a public park, and built replicas of the log cabins that had stood there a hundred years before. So to-day the deserted village of New Salem looks much as it did in Lincoln’s tims. The same white oaks under which Lincoln studied and wrestled and made love are still standing. Every morning I used to take my typewriter and motor up there from Petersburg, and half of the chapters of this book were written under those trees. What a lovely spot in which to work! In front of me flowed the winding Sangamon, and all about me the woods and the hay-fields were musical with the call of the bob-white; and through the trees flashed the color of the blue jay, the yellowhammer, and the redbird. I felt Lincoln there.
A fascinating portrait of Lincoln not by one of the many by academics and historians but rather by someone who was greatly influenced by Lincoln’s life.
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