By WILLIAM L. BUTTS
—Autograph June 2010
“Incomparable” is a word this reviewer doesn’t use lightly. In fact, that word has never appeared in this column until now, when a book crossed my path that cannot be compared to anything in the large field of Lincolniana. Many of us know Norm Boas as the respected owner of Seaport Autographs, a salt-of-the-earth autograph firm that’s cranked out an impressive 115 catalogues over the past 35 years. For years I’ve known that Norm’s Abraham Lincoln: Illustrated Biographical Dictionary has been in the works, and for years I’ve nagged him occasionally about it.
The wait was well worth it. This handsome hardbound production exceeds my expectations. Norm is no newcomer to publishing, having written and published biographies of Franz Boas and Jane Pierce, a history of Stonington, Connecticut and other titles. Nowhere else in the vast body of Abraham Lincoln studies is there a biographical dictionary that focuses on the army of friends, colleagues, neighbors and assorted associates that crossed Lincoln’s path in a meaningful way prior to his assuming the presidency.
For the first time, collectors of Lincolniana will be able to properly identify documents penned by persons unknown but from the right place and the right time period. They’ll have a large array of exemplars against which to compare items from their collections. The whole field of Lincolniana autographs has been enlarged by Boas’ Illustrated Biographical Dictionary, for now scores and scores of individuals difficult to pinpoint and identify may be properly named. Previously, an attempt to collect pre-presidential Lincoln friends, associates and neighbors would be thwarted unless one had access to a large array of specialized Lincoln volumes and time to research them exhaustively. Dealer catalogues such as my own often offer documents in this area, but collectors wanting to collect in any organized fashion faced serious difficulties.
Boas’ contribution may well transform and enlarge what before was a vaguely defined collecting field. Biographical sketches and autograph exemplars on well-known Lincoln contemporaries such as Stephen A. Douglas, Hannibal Hamlin and other famed governors, senators and politicos have always been readily available. But the now-obscure but nonetheless interesting and worthwhile persons that comprise the bulk of the Boas book are usually not accessible anywhere—perhaps a sentence in this book, a few words in that book. But as for examples of their signatures and handwriting… well, good luck locating examples in books. Ain’t gonna happen.
Want to collect autograph material from Lincoln’s neighbors in the tiny pioneer village of New Salem, where Lincoln lived between 1831 and 1837? By going to Boas’s Illustrated Biographical Dictionary one could easily cull out score upon score of those individuals, complete with examples of their signatures. Prefer to focus on Lincoln’s colleagues from the Illinois legislature? Again, Boas would be an ideal starting point. Intrigued by Lincoln’s fellow circuit court lawyers and other legal associates? In a word: Boas. I have no doubt that documents written and/or signed by interesting Lincoln associates lay unidentified in many a cluster of early 19th century Illinois papers, just waiting to be properly identified.
Boas does not claim his dictionary is definitive—though at this point, one could accurately call it authoritative for the simple fact that it’s the only book of its kind! At about 625 entries, it is extraordinarily thorough. Any Lincolnist would be hard pressed to name an early Lincoln friend, neighbor or colleague and not find him or her in its pages. I’ve been playing “Stump Norm” for the past couple weeks, and have yet to come up with a name not given an entry.
To his credit, Boas remains modest, as when he remarks, “Encyclopedic reference volumes are never complete and must be periodically updated with new information… It is our hope that this volume will be updated in the future adding many more names and illustrations.” These illustrations, by the way, are plentiful and varied and of decent quality, although none are in color.
Boas wisely refrains from offering any comments whatsoever on the value of documents signed by any of these persons. This is decidedly not a price guide. Prices in this field naturally tend toward the subjective, for values of most of the lesser-known figures aren’t well defined. I do wish that Boas had offered some thoughts on the relative scarcity of autograph material for all or at least some of his entries and the type of items most often found, perhaps at the close of the entries. Ann Rutledge material is virtually unheard-of and unobtainable… William Berry is rare but occasionally surfaces… William “Billy” Herndon is readily available though not inexpensive…. Those kind of casual observations would add a whole other dimension of usefulness to this volume. No dealer alive today has handled more of this type of Lincolniana than Boas, after all, so his perspective on this would be a welcome addition to a revised edition.
In the field of Lincolniana, so extensive that it’s rare to find anything that strikes one as having never been done, Boas’s Abraham Lincoln: Illustrated Biographical Dictionary – Family and Associates, 1809-1861 manages to create a new and fascinating niche.