The Great Enunciator
Lincoln as author
Somewhere, I don’t remember where, I listed Abraham Lincoln among the finest masters of English prose to come out of Springfield, or indeed Illinois. I was delighted that the people in charge of the new Illinois State Library building, which opened in 1989, agreed with me.
Months before construction began on the State of Illinois's new main library in Springfield, librarians began to compile a roster of noteworthy Illinois authors deserving to be remembered in stone on the building's memorial frieze. A distinguished committee of 18 people—nearly all the Illinoisans who have read enough to make an informed choice, by my guess—recommended names, with the final selections left to a committee of library staff. Thus in due course were carved the names of 36 authors, living and dead, who constitute Illinois's literary immortals.
The choices no doubt caused some puzzlement. Some of the names are unfamiliar—Peattie, Herrick—but one in particular stood out because it was all too familiar. Some two or three hundred thousand tourists visit Springfield each year without quite realizing that they are in the home of Abraham Lincoln, The Great Enunciator.
Lincoln's inclusion among the state's literary immortals may have startled those who, laboring under public school educations, know Lincoln only as the man who played Henry Fonda as an older man. Even locals, who may be presumed to know him better, tend to remember Lincoln's graceful farewell address to Springfield (reproduced in the city in both bronze and in stone) as a compliment to the town, not as a piece of prose. But on the library committee were sages who agree with me that the real tragedy of Lincoln's assassination was that it kept him from writing a history of the war.
I have a copy of small collections of Lincoln's speeches and letters published in 1907. It is introduced by James Bryce, the English historian and diplomat, who credits Lincoln's immersion in Shakespeare and the Bible for his skill with words. (He had to teach himself, Bryce adds, since "for many years [there] was no one for him to mix with except the petty practitioners of a petty town, men nearly all of whom knew little more than he did himself.") I pass this suggestion on to my colleagues in the national press: The next time you get a chance, ask Bush and Clinton and Perot to name the Shakespeare play they've read most often.
That brings up a point that may surprise some readers: That Ronald Reagan was at least the second Republican actor to live in the White House. Lincoln was an expert raconteur, an adept performer who liked to read aloud scenes from Shakespeare to small audiences of friends and staff and who as a young lawyer got raves for his stand-up act in some of the toughest rooms on the old Eighth judicial circuit.
In his new book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Gary Wills describes Lincoln as a revolutionary stylist whose Gettysburg Address "anticipated the shifts to vernacular rhythms which Mark Twain would complete twenty years later." His contributions to the literary heritage of Illinois and the nation were in the form of what he left out, not what he added to political rhetoric. But Lincoln was no mere stylist. His best remarks were dense with thought distilled, argument clarified. There was substance that gave his remarks weight and simplicity of expression that gave them force, although his style seems convoluted to modern ears accustomed to the sound bite.
Wills recalls Hemingway's claim that all modern American novels are offspring of Huckleberry Finn, then adds that all modern political prose similarly descends from the Gettysburg Address. "Descends" indeed, in quality as well as provenance. The complaint that Lincoln "only wrote speeches" came from people whose opinion of speeches was formed by listening to too many of Lincoln's dim-witted oratorical spawn. When was the last time you heard a President say anything that did not ring as hollow as the TV commercials from which, in structure and content, it derived? Can you imagine a President able to even imagine such a speech?
One can't reread any of Lincoln—or for that matter any of the better class of newspaper editorialists and politician of the day—without bemoaning the sorry state of political speech today. (His remarks from 1856 regarding the advance of slavery into the free territories are an admonishment to his would-be successors now campaigning: "We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called on to perform what we cannot.") It is perhaps unfair to compare George Bush to Lincoln. (It is unfair to compare Bush to any native English-speaker, in fact.) Nothing separates them more than their respective ability with the language. The faux Lincoln phraseology used by George Bush in his last State of the Union address was an especially egregious example.
In preparing this little screed, I jotted down the notion that difference between Lincoln and Bush as rhetoricians is the difference between a man who says what he wants to say and one who says what he thinks people want to hear. On further reflection I rejected that opinion as facile. The superiority of Lincoln's style ultimately owes to the superiority of his thought. The difference between him and the tongue-tied Bush is the difference between a man who knows what he wants to say and a man who doesn't.
Bryce noted, "Every native American knows [Lincoln's] life and speeches." Alas, no more. Where once every schoolchild had memorized the Gettysburg Address, today it is the unusual one who's even heard of it. I suspect that it is not the vanity of Lincoln's ghost that would be offended by this trend. Rather, it would be saddened by the news that our schoolchildren had not heard anything from its Presidents in the century and a quarter since he made that speech that is worth memorizing. ●