Inside the Petersen House, across from the reconstructed Ford’s Theater in the nation’s capital, stands a 34-foot tower of 6,800 books. Not actual books, but fireproof aluminum in the shape of books. Those 6,800 volumes represent nearly half of those written about the martyred 16th president of the United States. Clearly, there is an insatiable appetite for books about Abraham Lincoln. Such an abundance also means that new Lincoln-themed books must justify their existence. What more is there to learn about this much-studied and much-depicted man?

Today Lincoln is most remembered for his ideals, particularly those expressed in the Gettysburg Address and in his Second Inaugural Address. He symbolizes both union and freedom to millions of people in the United States and beyond. During his lifetime, people not only paid attention to Lincoln’s ideas, they were fascinated with his appearance. That is the starting point for Richard Wightman Fox’s Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History.

Americans were of many minds about Lincoln’s politics, but they were nearly unanimous in finding his appearance either odd or repulsive. He was often described as “grotesque” because of “his almost alien, otherworldly dimensions: six foot four (eight or nine inches taller than the average man of the day), massive head, narrow shoulders, short trunk, and endless legs.” The best that Lincoln supporter Walt Whitman could manage was to say that his face was “so awful ugly it becomes beautiful.” Lincoln’s detractors were merciless in mocking his looks, so Lincoln gamely joined in the fun. “In my poor, lean, lank face,” he joked, “nobody has ever seen that any cabbages were sprouting out.”