[11 February 2009]
Detroit Free Press (MCT)
Who in history has been the subject of the most books? According to one cataloguer, Jesus leads the list, followed by Shakespeare and then the Virgin Mary, with Abraham Lincoln (at more than 10,000 volumes) in fourth place.
With the bicentennial of the martyred president’s birth Feb. 12, today’s readers could construct cabins from stacked-up Lincoln volumes, as biographies, histories and analyses of seemingly every facet of his life have been streaming from publishers for the last several months. How does one decide which to read?
“Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer,” by Fred Kaplan, would be a top choice. It recounts the ingredients of Lincoln’s life that went into making him the man who could pen such memorable words as the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural address (“with malice toward none, with charity for all”).
The Bible, Shakespeare and “Pilgrim’s Progress” played a great part in the words that flowed from Lincoln’s pen.
Also helping to form his literary style was what Kaplan calls Lincoln’s “daily companion,” Robert Burns - a kindred spirit, who “would remain a lifelong passion.” Kaplan says Lincoln admired Burns’ “identification with the common man ... and his affirmation of personal and political liberty.”
“In Burns’ poetry, political legitimacy and moral authority arise from the consent of the governed, and those in power are not superior as human beings to the humblest dweller in a cottage, the Scots equivalent of the log cabin,” writes Kaplan.
Lincoln not only loved poetry; he also wrote poetry, few examples of which remain. The man who as a schoolboy wrote short sentences against cruelty to animals, later wrote a poem about a mortally wounded bear brought to bay in a hunt, highlighted by the following stanza: “But leaden death is at his heart/ Vain all the strength he plies/ And spouting blood from every part/ He reels, and sinks, and dies.”
Lincoln admired “Washington’s sensible succinctness and Jefferson’s eloquent simplicity,” Kaplan says. He wrote with precision, with “carefully crafted language” from his head, from his heart, from his soul. Rarely if ever has a perfect union of life experiences come together to create such an inspiring canon.
WHAT LINCOLN WROTE
Marching hand-in-hand with Kaplan’s “Lincoln” is “In Lincoln’s Hand: His Original Manuscripts,” edited by Harold Holzer and Joshua Wolf Shenk (Bantam, $35). This collection of reproductions of 40 of Lincoln’s manuscripts includes a draft of the Gettysburg Address, a page from one of his boyhood copybooks (“Abraham Lincoln/ his hand and pen/ he will be good/ but god knows When”), a draft of the “House Divided” address, and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Although Lincoln’s handwriting is legible, each document is accompanied by a printed text, as well as a commentary by such prominent Americans as Presidents Bush (father and son), Clinton and Carter; Toni Morrison, John Updike, Newt Gingrich and Sandra Day O’Connor. Included are photos, drawings and political cartoons of the time.
For those who want to know what constitutes America at her best, this collection is one magnificent answer. A superb gift to oneself and to others, it brings tears to the eyes, joy to the heart and pride to the spirit. Not only that, but, as Conan O’Brien comments of Lincoln’s words, “he wrote his own material. Who does that anymore?”