Six more books on Lincoln
Of the 60-plus Lincoln books released this season, several stand out.
In addition to being president, Abraham Lincoln was also a writer, commander of troops, assassination target, family man, and peer of other great men. The 16th president can be examined from many angles and, as we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, biographers have overlooked few of them.Skip to next paragraph
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Among the stacks, some titles stand out.
In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, English professor emeritus Fred Kaplan seeks the roots of the president’s truly timeless prose. “Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience or posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness,” Kaplan writes.
Consider a November morning in 1863, as an esteemed orator gave a speech at the dedication of a military cemetery in Pennsylvania. He finished two hours and 13,607 words later. The main attraction now complete, the audience waited for another speaker to make a few remarks. And few they were. In just 10 sentences, the president of the United States paid tribute to those lost in war and spoke of a young nation that must not “perish from the earth.” The words, simple and unadorned, turned Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into a national touchstone.
How did Lincoln write so beautifully and effectively, not just once or twice but again and again? From famous speeches to personal letters to conversations, Lincoln created sentences that crackled with imagery, intelligence, and emotion.
This academic-minded book isn’t for everyone. Its language is dense, and Civil War buffs may be disappointed to find that Kaplan spends little time examining the speeches of Lincoln’s presidency. But there’s still plenty here to reveal how Lincoln learned to inspire.
Kaplan follows Lincoln’s life through the prism of language, examining the books he read and the words he wrote and spoke aloud. “His was a personality and a career formed in the crucible of language,” Kaplan writes.
The future president’s love letters, speeches, essays, poems and even his dirty jokes all get their due. Kaplan also looks for connections between Lincoln’s reading material and his words, finding influences of Shakespeare and the Bible among other sources.
And what of the Gettysburg Address? In it, Kaplan finds poetry of loss, of renewal, of life and death. And, of course, the speech invokes the past and future of America, which Kaplan calls “a text constantly being rewritten.” So many years later, though, the words from one presidential pen need no revision.
It seems Lincoln’s sword was as mighty as that pen. In his perceptive new book, acclaimed Civil War historian James M. McPherson reveals the struggles and triumphs of an inexperienced president whose youthful military career consisted of fighting off mosquitoes. Three decades later, he managed to run a war and outshine his own generals.
In the end, he beat back foes from Richmond to Capitol Hill, persisting “through a terrible ordeal of defeats and disappointments to final triumph – and tragedy – at the end,” McPherson writes in Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief.
McPherson’s account isn’t a page turner, but the author carefully avoids military jargon and skillfully shows Lincoln as man, not myth. The president made mistakes and miscalculations. His frustration spilled out in depressed moods, sarcastic gibes, and red-hot anger. And he repeatedly failed to convince inept generals to act. But Lincoln still managed to succeed brilliantly, holding the North together and strategizing his way to victory.
Through the eyes of McPherson, readers learn how Lincoln got so smart: He read voraciously, carefully considered advice, charmed would-be enemies, and overlooked insults.