A Biography of Abe, Honest Writer

By Gary Schmidgall
Bust of the 16th president in City College's Lincoln Corridor is one of a limited series that also distinguish the White House and Lincoln's grave. It was personally presented to CCNY in 1908 by sculptor
Gutzon Borglum.

When it comes to punch lines and presidential politics, we live in a brazenly unoriginal age. We know that shoals of joke-smiths back up our late-night TV hosts, just as we are perfectly aware that the formal speeches by our presidents or candidates for the office have been word-processed by a coven of speech-writers.

Barack Obama's arrival in the Oval Office, however, may signify a change very pleasant to those, like me, who believe that the ability to write for oneself is an excellent hint that one might be able to think for oneself. You don't become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review without a firm hand on the pen (or PC keyboard), and it appears that Obama had full command of his two most important speeches thus far, the Philadelphia one on race and the inaugural address. The audacity of self-expression!

This might explain why Obama was photographed a few weeks after the election carrying a copy of Fred Kaplan's new Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (Harper) as he left a Chicago dinner party. This was not only great free publicity but also a tantalizing suggestion that the "text" of Obama's presidency we will be reading and listening to may be more authentically self-authored than that of his predecessors. This is because Kaplan, distinguished professor emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, notes in his preface that of all our presidents only Lincoln (along with Jefferson) "wrote every word to which his name is attached."

Kaplan grants that many have come before him to focus on Lincoln the writer. The first of several books on the subject appeared in 1900 (Kaplan also praises a short 1959 essay by Jacques Barzun, "Lincoln the Literary Artist"), and whole books have been devoted to each of his four indelible utterances: the Cooper Union speech, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Second Inaugural Address. Kaplan's innovation is to present a narrative "of the origin and development of Lincoln's literary sensibility and genius" that "starts from the beginning."

Well-practiced in the art of the full-dress biography (Carlyle, Dickens, Twain, and Gore Vidal), Kaplan's tight focus here frees him to keep the presence of Mrs. Lincoln to a minimum, ignore the intricacies of Civil War military strategy, and give the tedious, repetitious Lincoln-Douglas debates short shrift.

Attention is lavished on Lincoln's beginning as a reader during his log-cabin childhood in primitive Pigeon Creek, Ind. It blossomed beyond the Bible and Dilworth's Speller when his step-mother Sarah arrived with her three children and a suitcase of books like Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress. Later some standard anthologies filled out the very modest library. Still, young Lincoln became a fierce reader. He also was an ardent memorizer, a skill that served Lincoln well later, given his "lifelong preference for not speaking extemporaneously." Lincoln was an autodidact, perhaps fueling the intense ambition to which Kaplan often refers.

Lincoln's favorite authors make a rather odd trio: Shakespeare, Byron and Burns. The Bard's choice set-pieces he knew by heart, and Kaplan follows the allusions, quotations and misquotations of him throughout Lincoln's career, even suggesting that some of his speeches were "Shakespearean soliloquies of a sort." Kaplan often refers to Lincoln's gift for satiric barbs (also off-color humor) — the influence of Byron? Burns' emphasis on the common man and rustic dialect made him Lincoln's favorite poet. Kaplan often alludes to Lincoln's gloomy personality, so it is no wonder he carried a Poe volume when riding a court circuit.

Oddly, Walt Whitman, the poet now chiefly associated with Lincoln, doesn't appear at all, though there is a charming memoir by Henry Rankin describing what happened when Leaves of Grass landed in Lincoln's Springfield law office: Lincoln "commended the new poet's verses for their virility, freshness, unconventional sentiments and unique forms of expression."

Emerson, Kaplan shows, was a resonant presence for Lincoln, who heard him lecture in Springfield on "Power" in 1853, just as Lincoln's climb to power was beginning. Lincoln heard these portent-fraught words: "There are men, who, by their sympathetic attractions, carry nations with them . . . men whose magnetisms are of that force to draw material and elemental powers . . . no honest seeking goes unrewarded." We know Lincoln later checked Emerson's Representative Men out of the Library of Congress, and Kaplan quotes these words from its first essay, "Uses of Great Men," again emphasizing honesty: "The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome."

Though Lincoln delighted to recite Shakespeare's bejeweled blank verse, his own style, Kaplan makes clear, tends toward the Hemingway-esque. "Precision, brevity, and plain speech became his characteristic style." Though golden-tongued Henry Clay was his idol, Lincoln's forte was forthright language. By 1848, during his one brief term in Congress, Kaplan says, Lincoln had become "that rarest of public figures, one for whom language mattered so much that he felt compelled to use it honestly even when linguistic deceit was the order of the day." That bit of 1850s campaign spin about "Honest Abe," Kaplan argues, is the essence of his nature as a writer.

Skirting the well-raked-over Big Four speeches, he pays illuminating attention to more unfamiliar fare — for example, an 1842 speech to the Springfield Temperance Society ("Lincoln's least-appreciated composition"), the one Supreme Court case Lincoln argued before the infamous Chief Justice Roger Taney (an 1849 property rights case, the transcript only recently emerging from obscurity), a revealing eulogy of Henry Clay, and a speech at a Wisconsin state fair.

Having laid out the trenchancies, techniques, and tics of Lincoln's way with words, Kaplan ventures in his final pages this bold assertion: "Despite the press of duties, he found time to read, especially the Bible and Shakespeare, the only president, other than John Quincy Adams, for whom literature and life were inseparable."

Along the way, of course, there are several Obama moments in the narrative. For example, the 1858 Lincoln speech in Springfield — where Obama announced his candidacy — setting off an also-Obama-like two-year-long run for the presidency. Mixed blood figured as a campaign issue then as in 2008: Lincoln's dark complexion led to charges that he carried black blood. And Obama's inaugural address — short on flamboyance or what Lincoln called "fine specimens" — was decidedly in the literary style of the 16th president.

One thing about presidential campaigns has changed hugely. Back then, Kaplan points out, the etiquette was for party nominees to "make no public statements between the nomination and the election." Back in late October, that concept would have sounded pretty good to me.

Reality Check

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