David Herbert Donald, a leading American historian of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War who won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of the abolitionist statesman Charles Sumner and the novelist Thomas Wolfe, died Sunday in Boston. He was 88 and lived in Lincoln, Mass.; Wellfleet, Mass.; and Key West, Fla.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Aida D. Donald.
Mr. Donald, a native of Mississippi, first made his mark with "Lincoln's Herndon" (1948), a study of Lincoln's law partner and early biographer, William Henry Herndon. He went on to write and edit numerous histories of the Civil War, which were praised as much for their narrative vigor and elegance of style as for their insights into the period.
"Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War" (1960), the first volume in his magisterial biography of Sumner, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1961. "Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man" followed in 1970. Mr. Donald made the case for Sumner, often dismissed as a seething radical and crank, as an authoritative moral voice on the issue of rights for black Americans, more often right than wrong, and well out in front of his party and its leader, Lincoln.
Mr. Donald won his second Pulitzer, in 1988, for "Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe" (1987). He had been infatuated by the novelist since adolescence, certain, he wrote, "that Thomas Wolfe had told my life story." Cool reassessment forced him to admit that Wolfe "wrote more bad prose than any other writer I can think of," but drawing on a mass of letters, diaries and manuscripts, he developed a compelling portrait of Wolfe as an idiosyncratic genius consumed with his self-imposed mission to become "the bard of America," in Mr. Donald's phrase.
In 1995 he published "Lincoln," a book that the historian Eric Foner, speaking on National Public Radio in February, put at the top of the long list of Lincoln biographies.