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If you like David Herbert Donald's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Shelby Foote,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Frank McCourt,
David McCullough,
James Michener
and Gore Vidal

David Herbert Donald is also featured in the Audio Recordings area of this web site

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David Herbert Donald
David Herbert Donald
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David Herbert Donald Biography

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

David Herbert Donald Date of birth: October 1, 1920
Date of death: May 17, 2009

Print David Herbert Donald Biography Print Biography

  David Herbert Donald

David Herbert Donald was born in Goodman, Mississippi, about 30 miles north of Jackson. When Donald was growing up, the town had fewer than 700 inhabitants, a population nearly equally divided among its black and white residents. Donald's father was a cotton farmer, his mother a schoolteacher. Although their means were limited, they encouraged all their children to study and go to college. Young Donald had no particular inclination to pursue an academic career when he entered Millsaps College in Jackson, but he was deeply impressed by his history professor, Vernon Wharton.

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When he graduated, David Herbert Donald still had no greater career ambition than to become a high school band teacher, but the one interview he had for such a position put him off the idea. He applied to a number of graduate schools, in hopes of receiving a fellowship and postponing his job hunt. He won admission to the University of Illinois, where he was befriended by the historian James G. Randall and his wife Ruth. Randall was the era's pre-eminent Abraham Lincoln scholar, then at work on Lincoln the President, a four-volume study of the 16th president that would remain the definitive work on the subject for many years. Donald assisted Randall with his research, meticulously checking references in libraries and in the archives in Springfield, ground zero for Lincoln research. Donald immersed himself in the subject and deeply enjoyed the research process.

Professor Randall encouraged his student to write a dissertation on a Lincoln-related theme, the better to take advantage of his familiarity with the material. At Randall's suggestion, Donald produced a study of Lincoln's friend and law partner, William Herndon. Herndon himself had been the subject of intense controversy since 1889, when he published an unusually candid memoir of his friendship with the late president. Donald's dissertation was published as a book, Lincoln's Herndon, in 1948, with endorsements by Randall and by the poet Carl Sandburg, an Illinoisan who had himself written a popular life of Lincoln. The critical success of Donald's book led to prestigious academic offers, including one from Columbia University. Donald genuinely enjoyed teaching and gladly served as mentor to successive generations of young historians.

David Herbert Donald Biography Photo
But as a small-town Southerner, Donald felt out of place in New York City, and when his contract at Columbia expired, he surprised his colleagues by turning down a permanent appointment there to teach at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. This was the beginning of a long academic odyssey that would lead him back to Columbia, then to Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Oxford.

In the 1950s, Donald wrote Divided We Fought, a pictorial history of the Civil War, and edited the diaries of Lincoln's treasury secretary Salmon Chase, as well as two collections of essays, Lincoln Reconsidered and Why the North Won the Civil War. He also revised his mentor James Randall's textbook Civil War and Reconstruction. Donald's revised edition appeared in 1961. He would revise the work again in 2001.

Professor Donald continued his own work on the Civil War era with a two-volume biography of Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts who enjoyed a personal friendship and a complex political relationship with President Lincoln. The first volume of this work, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

David Herbert Donald Biography Photo
The civil rights struggle in the United States reached its climax while Donald was at work on his biography of Sumner, and while the first volume emphasizes Sumner's polarizing role in the years leading up to the war, the second stresses his fight to win equal rights for African Americans. This second volume, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man, appeared in 1970. Between the volumes of his Sumner biography, Donald published Politics of Reconstruction: 1863 -1867. Donald's peregrinations though academe came to an end in 1973, when he settled at Harvard University, the last 18 years of his teaching career. He held an endowed chair as Charles Warren Professor of American History, and chaired the graduate program in American history from 1979 to 1985.

After his long immersion in the politics of the 19th century, Donald turned to American literature of the 20th century for his next work, an incisive biography of the Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), whose first novel, Look Homeward Angel, had made a huge impression on the young Donald as a teenager in Mississippi. Donald traced Wolfe's journey from the hills of North Carolina to Harvard, New York City, Europe and back again, through the publication of Wolfe's posthumous novel You Can't Go Home Again. Wolfe's sprawling novels had fallen out of favor with critics in the '60s and '70s, but Donald's Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, was hailed as a unique accomplishment. In 1988, Donald received a second Pulitzer Prize for Biography for this work.

Professor Donald retired from teaching in 1991, but some of his most important writing still lay ahead. Having enjoyed a vacation from Civil War studies, Donald returned to the subject to produce his crowning achievement. Since the publication of Randall's massive Lincoln the President, new documentary materials had become available, including the records of Lincoln's law practice, and Donald felt it was time for a new full-length biography of Lincoln, revealing the complex, calculating and ambitious man behind the legend. Donald's Lincoln, published in 1995, won universal acclaim and has become the Lincoln biography against which all others are measured.

Donald followed this with two related books, Lincoln at Home: Two Glimpses of Lincoln's Domestic Life and We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, profiling the members of Lincoln's inner circle, the Illinois friends who carried Lincoln from Springfield to the White House.

David Herbert Donald Biography Photo
David Herbert Donald wrote his last books while teaching at Harvard, living nearby in -- appropriately enough -- Lincoln, Massachusetts. Over the years, Donald was sought out by Presidents from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who sought his insight into the dynamics of presidential leadership, as exemplified by Abraham Lincoln.

In his last years, David Herbert Donald's attention turned from Lincoln and his associates to the Adams family of Massachusetts. His last published work was an edition of The Diary of Charles Francis Adams, the descendant of two U.S. Presidents, who served as Lincoln's envoy to Britain during the Civil War. Professor Donald co-edited this publication with his wife, Aida DiPace Donald, herself a noted historian. At the time of his death, Professor Donald was at work on a biography of John Quincy Adams, describing the post-presidential congressional career of the sixth U.S. President.

Apart from writing or editing more than 30 books on American history, Professor Donald regarded the training of young historians as his life's work. His former students include many of the finest teachers and writers of American history working in the field today. These accomplishments aside, David Herbert Donald's greatest gift to the world was bringing to life for a new generation the man historians consider America's greatest president and one of the most remarkable leaders who ever lived.

This page last revised on Mar 15, 2010 13:41 EDT
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