By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 2, 2008
The Biography of a Writer
By Fred Kaplan
Harper. 406 pp. $27.95
The literature about Abraham Lincoln is so vast as to defy comprehension, yet historians and other scholars -- not to mention novelists, poets, artists, sculptors, even composers -- continue to find new and revealing things to say about this greatest of all Americans. Fred Kaplan's Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, is the latest case in point, a book that is certain to become essential to our understanding of the 16th president. To be sure, many others before Kaplan have dealt in various ways with Lincoln's love of literature and writing, but no one has explored the subject so deeply or found so much meaning in it. Kaplan's central subjects are Lincoln's "compelling interest in language as the instrumental vehicle for civilization and culture" and his specific interest in written language, about which he once said:
" Writing-- the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye -- is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it -- great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. . . . Its utility may be conceived, by the reflection, that to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it."
The language of that passage may seem a trifle quaint to today's reader, but the essential truth of it is clear and beyond argument. And at a time when careful writing has fallen into disrepute -- a time of lower-case e-mail, text messages and advertising idiocy -- its importance may well be greater than ever, especially when one contemplates the debased state of political discourse. As Kaplan points out, "Lincoln is distinguished from every other president, with the exception of Jefferson, in that we can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached," and he "was also the last president whose character and standards in the use of language avoided the distortions and other dishonest uses of language that have done so much to undermine the credibility of national leaders." Some presidents have been well served by their speechwriters, but "the challenge of a president himself struggling to find the conjunction between the right words and honest expression, a use of language that respects intellect, truth, and sincerity, has largely been abandoned."
It is always instructive to study Lincoln, but now is a particularly good time to consider his devotion to words. Yes, times do change and with them the ways by which we communicate with each other, but the need for clear, honest and comprehensible speech and writing has never been greater, as the political season now ending has made all too apparent. How we will be served in this regard by the person who is elected president on Tuesday remains to be seen, but the rhetoric of recent presidents -- in particular the two most recent ones -- does not bode well. Mendacity, as we know to our sorrow, has become a well-established presidential prerogative, and Adlai Stevenson's pledge to "talk sense to the American people" is a figment of a forgotten past.
So let us contemplate the example of Abraham Lincoln, who before the age of 10 -- and in circumstances scarcely conducive to learning, much less deep learning -- had developed the habit of reading. As a boy on a farm in Kentucky in the early 1800s he seemed to face a "lifelong fate" of manual labor, as his father had, but in 1816 he came under the influence of a schoolmaster who set him on a different path. His "first formal lessons in literacy came from Thomas Dilworth's New Guide to the English Tongue, popularly known as Dilworth's Speller, a widely reprinted textbook first published in London in 1740." The book "taught Protestant theology and moral behavior" as well as grammar, and "some of the language and its lessons entered deeply into him" as "guideposts in his formative years."
Then, in 1818, not long after the Lincolns moved to Indiana, Lincoln's mother died. A year later his father married Sally Bush Johnston, a passionate reader who brought "a small but marvelous library" with her. Young Abe's world changed forever "when she took from her luggage the Arabian Nights, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Noah Webster's Speller, Lindley Murray's The English Reader, and William Scott's Lessons in Elocution."
Though he could not have been aware of it at the time, Lincoln's constant, obsessive reading was teaching him how to write. The rhythms and cadences of the prose and poetry that he read -- Shakespeare (his lifelong "secular Bible"), Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Edward Gibbon, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope -- insinuated themselves into his capacious, ever curious mind and became the bedrock upon which his own majestic prose eventually was constructed. His reading also made him, again all unwittingly, a son of the Enlightenment, one who "had little mind for transcendence, let alone permanence," but was connected "to the rooted quotidian"; to him, "reason, logic, and experience seemed the best guides." The Enlightenment's "prevailing synthesis, which Lincoln absorbed, emphasized a combination of Christian ethics, classical style, and natural law." Shakespeare's "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason. . . ." became his touchstone: "No matter how powerful the appeal of bombast, moodiness, and melancholy, Lincoln found in his Enlightenment models and in Shakespeare the affirmation of his tested but sustained faith in man's reasoning faculty as his highest and in reason's power to advance good works."
He believed that he had the capacity to do important things but often feared that the opportunity would never come his way. His young adulthood, his long apprenticeship in law and politics, his romantic disappointments and strange yet crucial marriage to Mary Todd -- all gave him cause to wonder whether at worst failure or at best modest accomplishment was to be his fate. Through it all, though, he kept reading, and by 1846, when he was practicing law in Springfield, he decided to "try his hand as a writer of literature, attempting to use language as a vehicle of self-exploration and pleasurable expression in a way distinctly different from the writing that he had done as a political man addressing public issues." In three poems of his that have survived "the two alternative modes of his personality -- the melancholy and the humorous -- provided literary guidelines." He wrote little poetry thereafter, but "the command of literary models and of language that enabled him to write these credible poems in 1846," Kaplan says, was "inseparable from his command of language as a prose writer."
Kaplan -- emeritus professor of English at Queens College and author of well regarded biographies of Mark Twain, Henry James and Charles Dickens, among others -- meticulously analyzes how Lincoln's steadily maturing prose style, "projecting a persona of dignified but amiable authenticity," enabled him to come to grips with slavery and, as his own views evolved, to express his deepening opposition to it. In 1854, not long after Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which permitted slavery's westward expansion, Lincoln tartly exposed what Kaplan calls the "flawed and dangerous" logic of slavery's adherents. Then, the next year, he exploded:
"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ' all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equals, except Negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy."
Five years later he was elected president. We know the rest of the story, and Kaplan devotes far less space to it than to Lincoln's education as a writer, for by then -- just in time -- that education was complete. In one of the finest passages in this fine, invaluable book, Kaplan sets him on the road to Washington:
"If intellectual readiness is everything, he was ready, as he well knew when he said goodbye to his Springfield world, having prepared himself over a lifetime to become a well-read master of the human narrative. If that narrative was to have its tragic dimension in Lincoln's failure, despite his talents, to prevent the South's secession, shorten the inevitable war, or alleviate Northern racism, it was to be an object lesson in the limitations of language rather than a failure in preparation. At the same time, the unfortunate givens of the narrative provided the context for his two greatest achievements, the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural address, in which he did what great writers do: create useful texts from which readers can derive inspiration, literary pleasure, and universalizing direction."
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.