Illinois Issues Summer Book Section
Lincoln: a literary craftsman
By RICHARD N. CURRENT
Don E. Fehrenbacher, editor. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858. Speeches, Letters, Miscellaneous Writings, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. New York: Library of America, 1989. Pp. 898 with chronology, notes and index. $35 (cloth).
Don E. Fehrenbacher, editor. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865. Speeches, Letters, Miscellaneous Writings, Presidential Messages and Proclamations. New York: Library of America. 1989. Pp. 787 with chronology, notes and index. $35 (cloth).
Not many presidents rank among "America's greatest writers," whose works the Library of America is in the process of republishing. Thomas Jefferson has been included in the series, and now Abraham Lincoln. Ulysses S. Grant is scheduled to appear (literary critic Edmund Wilson praised his Memoirs as one of the finest examples of the genre). Others perhaps worthy of such consideration are John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. No later president even comes close, however imposing a battery of ghostwriters he may have had. Among all the politicians in American history, Lincoln must surely take first place as a literary figure. Not that he wrote much in the way of belles lettres. He did compose a number of formal essays — which he delivered as speeches — on such topics as "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," the "Temperance Cause" and "Discoveries and Inventions." He experimented with satire in the "Rebecca" letters, impersonating a gossipy woman to ridicule a political foe, and tried his hand at poetry a couple of times, producing 24 stanzas of "My Childhood-Home I See Again" and 22 of "The Bear Hunt." Indeed, he was something of a frustrated poet. His favorite poem, "Mortality," by the obscure Scottish versifier William Knox, was certainly no better than his own efforts in poetic form. Yet, he once confessed: "I would give all I am worth and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is."
So said the man who was to write some of the finest prose passages in the English language. These occur in his state papers and other political writings, which constitute the bulk of his published works. (Most surviving records of his law cases remain to be published.) Even his private correspondence is mainly concerned with politics.
His most brilliant gems of composition are familiar enough. They include the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural and the widow Bixby letter, consoling a Boston woman who supposedly lost five sons in the war. But bits of eloquence also appear in ordinary and less familiar documents. In his 1862 message to Congress, for example, a largely routine presentation of facts concludes with the moving words: "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history .... The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation . . . . In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth."
Judged on their own merit, many of the Lincoln items would hardly be worth inclusion among the works of America's greatest writers. But the best of his expressions cast a kind of glow over the rest. And practically all exemplify literary craftsmanship of a high order — nothing fancy, just strong declaratory sentences and always le mot juste. Though having gone to school only "by littles." Lincoln somehow learned to write with more of the college composition teacher's "clearness, force, and elegance'' than all but a few college graduates ever achieve. James A. Garfield fell far short of Lincoln, though Garfield had been a college professor as well as a college president and could write Latin with one hand while writing Greek with the other.
The editor of the present volumes, Don E. Fehrenbacher, has wisely been inclusive. Some of the material may be a bit prosaic, and some of it certainly is repetitious, but all together it provides an account that can be read continuously, almost like an intellectual autobiography. Only a few of the contents might be questioned — and these on the basis of authorship rather than taste. The Thanksgiving proclamation of October 20, 1863, was written by William H. Seward, as Lincoln's private secretary John G. Nicolay informed his assistant John Hay. Two similar proclamations — those of July 15, 1863, and October 20, 1864 — were also Seward's rather than Lincoln's, as judged by their faint redolence of the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer.
Like other volumes in the series, these are nicely printed on lightweight paper and are comfortable to hold and read. A flyleaf contains the acknowledgment: "The publishers wish to thank the Illinois State Historical Library, the Lincoln Legals Project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and the Illinois State Historical Society for the use of Abraham Lincoln materials."
This reminds us of what Lincoln means to Illinois and what Illinois, particularly Springfield, meant to Lincoln. "To this place, and the kindness of these people," he said on departing for Washington, February 11, 1861, "I owe every thing."
Richard N. Current, recently of Hinsdale and now of South Natick. Mass., is the author of The Lincoln Nobody Knows and other books on Lincoln.
30/July 1990/Illinois Issues