David Herbert Donald, a biographer and a historian of the US Civil War era, was born in Goodman, Mississippi, on 1 October 1920. His father, Ira Unger Donald, was a cotton planter; his mother, Sue Ella Belford Donald, had been a schoolteacher. Donald’s early interests were in music and perhaps ministry, but they were eventually overtaken by his passion for history and the life of the mind. He became one of his generation’s preeminent historians, a masterful literary craftsman, and twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in biography.
Donald’s academic distinctions were blue-blooded: highest honors as a graduate of Millsaps College in 1941; a brief graduate stint at the University of North Carolina, which was then in the vanguard of the sociological inquiry that engaged him; and finally, doctoral training at the University of Illinois under James G. Randall, the era’s most outstanding Civil War scholar. After receiving his doctorate in 1945, Donald taught at Columbia University, Smith College, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University, where he became the Charles Warren Professor of American History. He retired in 1991 and received emeritus status. Even at age thirty-one, Donald displayed an “erudition and courtliness” and was “appropriately tweedy in dress, with prematurely thinning hair and thick glasses.”
Donald focused on political history, taking a skeptical view that often was at odds with much of the received historical wisdom: the last of Donald’s elegant biographies, Lincoln (1995), portrayed a passive, mistake-prone president who reacted to rather than guided events. Similarly, Donald saw Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner as vain, pompous, and acutely and constantly in need of approval and his fellow abolitionists as consumed by status anxiety. But despite his origins as a white son of the segregated South, Donald did not demean their cause or the people to whom that cause was dedicated. A self-described “Christian and conservative,” Donald’s approach and his intellect in general were subtly shaped by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose philosophy also guided the works of some scholars with whom Donald frequently disagreed.
Donald was a writer with roots in a rural Mississippi tradition. As a young man Donald was surrounded by stories and storytellers—mainly elderly women whose epic stories of pioneers, ex-Confederates, and family-defying iconoclasts imparted an oral tradition keen in vernacular language, rich in personal experience, and alive with drama, artistry, and possibility. “Inevitably,” he wrote, “this tradition affected my own approach toward history—as it has affected so many of the best historians of the South. Though I was trained in the best ‘scientific’ methods of historical research, taught to deal with vast impersonal forces like ‘class,’ ‘caste,’ ‘capitalism,’ ‘feudalism,’ and the like, I found that when I actually sat down to write, my mind slipped into the old patterns of narration, of making readers see and understand real-life figures in the past.” Indeed, although he authored and edited dozens of books and essays, the best-known and most influential of Donald’s works are personal and biographical: Lincoln’s Herndon (1948); Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), for which he won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize; Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970); and Lincoln, which received the 1996 Lincoln Prize. Reflecting his broad interests, the influences of his boyhood, and his intellectual courage and confidence, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (1987)—an enormous professional gamble for a historian of his rank and stature—won him his second Pulitzer Prize. Donald’s work embraced and experimented with many different tools of analysis—quantitative method, psychoanalysis, literary criticism—and, partly because Donald revised his views over a long career, his writings do not fit easily into any one school of historical thought.
Donald married fellow historian Aida DiPace in 1955, and they had three children. He died on 17 May 2009.
- David Herbert Donald, “On Being an American Historian,” US Department of State, Bureau of International Information Programs website, http://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/writers/donald.htm
- Ari Hoogenboom, in A Master’s Due: Essays in Honor of David Herbert Donald, ed. William J. Cooper Jr., Michael F. Holt, and John McCardell (1985)
- Robert Allen Rutland, ed., Clio’s Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945–2000 (2000)