Tuesday, November 19, 2013

`Unable to Deliver a Mere Dry Lecture'

“I doubt that there ever can be too much analysis and commentary on that masterpiece. How did this country ever manage to produce that man?” 

So asks Helen Pinkerton in a recent email. Who does she mean? Herman Melville, perhaps? Henry James? The pool of candidates suggested by the reverent tone of Helen’s question is remarkably narrow, and her answer will surprise those whose notion of “literary” and “non-literary” is hidebound and fashionable: Abraham Lincoln. One hundred fifty years ago today, our greatest president and one of our greatest writers delivered a brief speech at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, on Nov. 19, 1863. Characteristically, Lincoln mingles humility and audacity in his Gettysburg Address when he says, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here . . .” 

It was an age of bombast not unlike our own, though more eloquent. The featured speaker at the dedication ceremony was Edward Everett, a former Whig congressman and senator, secretary of state, governor of Massachusetts, ambassador to Great Britain and president of Harvard, who took two hours and 13,607 words to say nothing memorable. Lincoln used 271 words (depending on which variant you read) in ten sentences, and little more than two minutes to give a speech that sixth-graders in Cleveland were still memorizing a century later, and that still chokes up attentive readers and listeners. It’s the one address, the one American literary masterwork, known, first word to last, by millions of Americans, at least those in later middle age and older. Helen was responding to the link I had sent her to Richard Gamble’s “Gettysburg Gospel,” and she referred to Garry Wills’ excellent Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1992). Twenty years ago I recommended that book to a city editor I worked with, a guy who seldom read anything except newspapers, and he soon thanked me and said it was the best book he had ever read. Probably my single favorite work on the sixteenth president is “Lincoln, the Literary Genius” (later retitled “Lincoln the Writer”) by Jacques Barzun, originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1959 for the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth: 

“The qualities of Lincoln's literary art--precision, vernacular ease, rhythmical virtuosity, and elegance—may at a century’s remove seem alien to our tastes. Certainly we vehemently promote their opposites: our sensibility cherishes the indistinct. Yet if we consider one continuing strain in our tradition, we cannot without perverseness question the relevance to the present generation of Lincoln's literary art. His example, plainly, helped to break the monopoly of the dealers in literary plush.” 

Another perhaps unexpected admirer of Lincoln’s literary gift is Marianne Moore, who published “Abraham Lincoln and the Art of the Word” in 1960 for inclusion in Lincoln for the Ages, edited by R.G. Newman. Her reading is close and writerly, and tacitly repudiates the writing-by-committee practiced by politicians today: 

“Consider also the stateliness of the three cannots in the Gettysburg Address: `We cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we may say here, but it can never forget what they did here.’ Editors attempting to improve Lincoln’s punctuation by replacing dashes with commas, should refrain – the dash, as well known, signifying prudence.” 

Moore suggests that Lincoln was no literary idiot savant, no unlettered hick from Kentucky, by way of Indiana and Illinois. He worked at it. The Gettysburg Address as we think we know it exists in five drafts, each slightly different, and all different from the various newspaper accounts of the speech. Like every first-rate working writer, Lincoln was a tireless tinkerer with his words. He often revised until the very last minute. In Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), Douglas L. Wilson puts Lincoln’s literary accomplishments into an American literary context: 

“The truth is that Lincoln’s writing, while frequently given credit for its clarity, did not rate high by the prevailing standards of eloquence, which, like the architecture of the day, valued artifice and ornament. Like his contemporaries Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson, Lincoln was effectively forging a new, distinctly American instrument. Less self-consciously than some of these, perhaps, but no less diligently, Lincoln was in his own way perfecting a prose that expressed a uniquely American way of apprehending and ordering experience. His all-consuming purpose was, of course, not literary but political—to find a way to reach a large and diverse American audience, and to persuade them to support the government in its efforts to put down the rebellion.” 

Lincoln, in other words, was no aesthete but a sophisticated pragmatist of word and deed. His writing invites us to expand our definition of literature beyond its provincial boundaries. We have the privilege to read for pleasure – literary pleasure in the deepest sense -- what he wrote for practical ends. As Eva Brann writes in “A Reading of Lincoln’s `Gettysburg Address’” (Homage to Americans, Paul Dry Books, 2010), putting the president’s words into their wartime context: 

“ . . . Lincoln expresses his sense of urgency in that late fall of 1863, when, after the summer battles of Gettysburg, he had been disappointed, as the pressing letters to his generals show . . . by the indecisive maneuvering in the east. Lincoln felt oppressed by a sense of unfinished business, and had for that reason said his speech would be `short, short, short.’” 

Brann is probably less well-known than the other writers cited here and she repays your efforts spent in seeking out her books. Her fifty-four-page essay on the Gettysburg Address is a close textual and rhetorical analysis of Lincoln’s speech written by an educator and classicist. She writes: “. . . in part Lincoln’s case is that of a lawyer interpreting law. But the lapidary precision of form which carries the patriarchal grandeur of Lincoln’s oratory—he was unable to deliver a mere dry lecture—is something more, namely a sign of a novel kind of aristocracy—republican aristocracy.”

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