Books

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer

Stauffer demonstrates in amusing and enlightening fashion the pivotal role fisticuffs and fighting had in helping Lincoln and Douglass define themselves and take control of their fates.


Giants

Publisher: Grand Central
Subtitle: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
Author: John Stauffer
Price: $30.00
Length: 448
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780446580090
US publication date: 2008-11
Amazon

In the wake of the historic election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States, many pundits and commentators abandoned their usual discussion of the minor aspects of policies and electoral politics to appreciate the immense significance of the event. Those who did and did not support his candidacy can agree on one thing: that President-elect Obama represents a tremendous milestone in the history of a country scarred by the evil of slavery and haunted by the racial divisions sown by our forefathers. To hear from notable black Americans who participated in the civil rights movement, such as Georgia representative John Lewis, as they confess their doubts that they would ever live to see such an event transpire and celebrate with elation that they did, it compels us to look back at the names and faces of those who worked so hard to make these dreams reality.

In this sense, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln is an extraordinarily apt book for our times. Obama's political and personal pedigree has drawn comparisons to both men. Like Lincoln, Obama is an Illinois politician who rose to the White House rather briskly in a time of immense social strife. Like Douglass, he is a powerful orator, community activist, and is of mixed race. Like both men, Obama is a self-made man, working tirelessly to educate himself, experience the world around him, and achieve heights of success that one would not expect of someone from humble beginnings.

Author John Stauffer lectures on the history of American civilization and is a professor of English at Harvard University. He is well versed in the politics and culture of the United States in the mid-19th century, having previously written books on radical abolitionists like martyred firebrand John Brown, and edited Douglass' own writings for modern publication. Giants is meant to be a dual biography, following Lincoln and Douglass through their lives and careers in alternating chapters so that we not only have an understanding of what each man was doing, but of what they were doing in relation to one another in the same time period. Stauffer's intention is to demonstrate how both men transformed themselves in their efforts to transform America, and that their paths, though varied by circumstance and station, were very similar.

Growing up in what was then the frontier, Lincoln was considered "white trash," as Stauffer puts it, the son of a single father who hired his child out to work for strangers and felt trapped by his rustic, provincial surroundings. Douglass, bound at birth by slavery, had a relatively placid childhood compared to his fellow slaves, owed in part to the fact that his father was almost certainly his mother's slavemaster, Aaron Anthony. It was not until his teen years that he endured the harsh treatment typical of the times, at the hands of the notorious Edwin Covey. Stauffer demonstrates in amusing and enlightening fashion the pivotal role fisticuffs and fighting had in helping Lincoln and Douglass define themselves and take control of their fates. They were strong men from the start, unwilling to bend or bow to external forces.

Lincoln and Douglass were low-caste figures in American society and being intelligent young men, they knew it, and struggled to escape it. Both identified reading and education as the key to their ascendance, and each took solace (and early moral and political shaping) from a book titled The Columbian Orator.

While the early childhoods of Lincoln and Douglass bore a slight resemblance to one another, the two men seem to sharply diverge when they begin their careers. Douglass is a gifted speaker and intellectual, and once he attains his personal freedom, he exercises his freedom of speech at every opportunity, his oratory swinging between caustic and mellifluous, a verbal rope-a-dope that left audiences reeling and begging for more. His chapters in Giants are incredibly entertaining, as he is endlessly outspoken, truly brilliant, and marvelously inspiring.

Lincoln, on the other hand, spends much of his early career being the consummate politician: dissembling, vague, and callow. His two years in the House of Representatives are undistinguished, even disappointing, and some of the stories of his time in Illinois state politics are downright embarrassing. He clearly feels that slavery is wrong and founded on flawed principals, but makes no significant effort to bring about its end, fearful that it will submarine his fledgling political career. Stauffer highlights Lincoln's early support of repatriation of American slaves to Africa and his notion that while slavery might be abolished someday, it would probably not be able to be eliminated fully until the 1950s. Eventually, the Abraham Lincoln we know and love as the savior of the Union emerges, but his transformation is treated rather superficially by Stauffer, and there doesn't seem to be a clear fulcrum for his shift from mealy-mouthed careerist to the monumental figure remembered in most history texts.

In Stauffer's telling, Douglass is the only giant of the story, a colossal and towering figure whose advocacy and activism planted the seeds of today's history-making election. Lincoln seems lightly treated throughout Giants, overshadowed by Douglass's intensity, and so this dual biography feels lopsided, unbalanced. Readers may wish to delve more deeply into each man's life one at a time, rather than together, to avoid making too many unfair comparisons and to give each the focus they deserve.

6
Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of the Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he could shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means the brightest star in the power-pop universe has suddenly gone dim.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of the Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he could shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means the brightest star in the power-pop universe has suddenly gone dim.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.