David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War and American South whose expertise on Abraham Lincoln brought him a wide general audience and reverence from his peers, has died. He was 88.
Donald died of heart failure at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston on Sunday while awaiting heart surgery, said his wife, Aida.
"Of course, I am devastated," said his wife of 54 years. "He was a wonderful husband and father and he had a spectacular career as a teacher."
A professor emeritus at Harvard University, Donald won Pulitzers for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe. But his books on Lincoln became his legacy. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to the first George Bush summoned him for lectures and fellow scholars acknowledged his prominence, especially as Lincoln's bicentennial was celebrated this year.
"He was not only one of the best historians of our era but he was also one of the classiest and most generous scholars I have ever met," said Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals, a best-selling Lincoln biography.
"When I began my work on Lincoln I was as green as any rookie, never having studied the 19th century, much less Lincoln, and yet he took me under his wing, invited me to his house to share the treasures of his incredible Lincoln library, suggested the best books to start with, and encouraged my decision to focus on the cabinet."
Donald's stature was so high among Lincoln experts that an award was even named after him, the David Herbert Donald Prize for "excellence in Lincoln studies."
In 2005, Donald was the first honoree.
He was working on a "character study" of John Quincy Adams at his death, his wife said. "He was a very hard worker, and his family, his writing and teaching were his life in that order," she said.
Donald published his first Lincoln book in the late 1940s and kept at it for more than 50 years, going back on repeated vows to move on to another subject. His books included Lincoln at Home, a study of his family life, and We Are Lincoln Men, essays about Lincoln's friends and associates.
Lincoln, a single-volume biography of the president, came out in 1996 and became so popular that presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole both claimed they were reading it. Years later, when customers at the Lincoln Memorial bookstore would ask for a good biography, Donald's book was recommended.
Some reviewers, however, faulted Donald for insisting on "the essential passivity" of Lincoln, an interpretation that Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post found contradicted by the president's "determination and vigor" in carrying out his decisions.
Donald, the grandson of a Union cavalry officer, was not a Lincoln man in his early years. Born into a farming family in Goodman, Miss., he fancied himself a musician before some odd twists landed him elsewhere.
He majored in history and sociology at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. After graduation, Donald hitchhiked to Indianola, Miss., where he was interviewed for a job as a high school band teacher, a position funded by sales from a Coca-Cola machine.
"The man who interviewed me told me I could have the job and I went to gather whatever I had and started to follow him out of his office," Donald recalled during a 2005 interview with The Associated Press. "He said, 'You forget your hat.' And I said 'I don't wear a hat.' And he said, 'You teach in my school, you'll wear a hat.' So I didn't take the job."
Donald looked instead at graduate schools. His academic adviser at Millsaps was too busy to help, so Donald wrote his own recommendations and was accepted into the University of Illinois. Years later, he visited the school and had a chance to see his records.
"I looked into my admissions file and it said, 'Admit this man. He has excellent letters of recommendation,"' Donald told the AP.
Having grown up in a segregated town, he was interested in race relations and planned to study the post-Civil War era. But he also needed money and found a job working as a research assistant to a leading Lincoln scholar, James Garfield Randall.
For decades after Lincoln's death, writing on the president was dominated by nonhistorians, such as poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote a best-selling, lyrical and famously unreliable biography. Randall helped transform Lincoln studies into a professional discipline.
Donald's mentor encouraged him to write about Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon. Lincoln's Herndon began as a dissertation and became Donald's first book, published in 1948, with an introduction, ironically, from Sandburg.
Donald's reputation grew throughout the next few decades as he carefully picked apart the Lincoln myths dear to poets, dreamers and politicians. In such classic essays as "Getting Right With Lincoln" and "The Folklore Lincoln," he noted Lincoln's transformation from laughing stock to saint upon his assassination and the efforts of both Democrats and Republicans to claim him for their parties.
During his AP interview, Donald acknowledged that he, too, had changed his feelings about Lincoln.
"When I started out, I wasn't interested in Lincoln, and frankly found him a tiresome old fellow who was rather long-winded, told too many stories, was kind of a rough, frontier sort," said Donald, who dismissed more recent theories that Lincoln was gay or chronically depressed.
"As I grew older, I realized the jokes and stories he told were really very funny and they always had a point to them. And I watched the way he worked with people and what an extraordinarily adept politician he was. ... He was much more sensitive and human than I had thought before."
Donald married Aida DiPace in 1955 and had one child, Bruce Randall. The Donalds moved to Lincoln, Mass. in the 1970s, not in homage to the president, but because of good schools and proximity to Boston.
In addition to his wife and son, Donald is survived by two grandchildren. Graveside services at Lincoln Cemetery are scheduled for Wednesday.