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. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.