Sunday, August 12, 2007

Collins: "Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan"

[Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan by Robert Collins (Pelican, 2007) Hardcover, photos, 1 map, bibliography, brief index. Pages total/main: 320/304. ISBN: 9781589804456. $29.95]

The subtitle of Robert Collins's new biography of James H. Lane speaks to the continuing controversy surrounding the "Grim Chieftain". Whatever one might think of him, Lane is an important military and political figure deserving of a full modern biography. While the range of opinion contains little middle ground, Collins does provide perhaps the most favorable view of Lane in the literature.

Unfortunately, the author's writing and methodology do create unnecessary concerns for the reader. When discussing controversial aspects of Lane's life (ex. his birth, early stance on slavery, etc.) Collins lists the views of previous biographers and other sources, then adds his own commentary. Unfortunately, without footnotes, it is difficult to tell if the frequent equivocation on such matters is an admirable admission to the unknowing or a lack of deeper research into primary source materials by the author.

The bibliography is limited in scope, with a heavy does of secondary sources leavened with newspapers and some manuscripts. Reading this book, few quotes from Lane himself will be found. While public friends and enemies spilled a great deal of ink, it appears Lane and his intimates left little behind in the way of correspondence and no journals. Only a handful of letters written by Lane are listed in the manuscript section of the bibliography. This dearth of insight into his moments of private reflection leaves us to view the man almost entirely from a distance.

A popular notion in the literature (usually accompanied by little if any documentation) is that Lane was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. My own view is that Lincoln, consummate politician that he was, had a relationship with Lane better characterized as toleration for someone found to be quite useful in achieving a common goal. The author is willing to go further. While not delving into the matter deeply or convincingly, Collins reinforces the view of a mutually beneficial Lincoln-Lane friendship.

Although some unsavory aspects of Lane's life (such as his shooting of Gaius Jenkins and corruption allegations against the senator) are dealt with in detail, Collins generally puts forth a favorable view of Lane, attributing much of his negative reputation to the imaginings of partisan political enemies. Disappointingly, other equally important controversies (such as Lane's 1861 raids into Missouri) are treated almost dismissively. Only a few paragraphs are devoted to the 'Sack of Osceola'. Perhaps the most useful part of the book is its last chapter, a nice survey of Lane historiography. It's a fairly detailed examination of the multitude of views about Lane in print and their evolution over time.

Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan is not a definitive modern biography, but its author does demonstrate a solid grasp of the published literature and has clearly spent a great deal of time in reasonable contemplation of his subject's place in history. However, the frequent equivocation and lack of documentation leaves readers with far more questions than answers and will frustrate those hardy souls looking to embark on their own inquiry. In the end, it seems that views of Lane will always be colored by the politically charged feud between the senator and Gov. Charles Robinson. There is a great quote in the book [pg. 185] from editor D.W. Wilder that sums up Kansas politics of the period, "On all public questions there is a Robinson version and a Lane version, and neither is the truth".

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