Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln at Gettysburg: the Words that Remade America, by Garry Wills
1992, 319 pp.

Nobody can agree about poor Abraham Lincoln. He seems to be all things to all people, including an object of pillory and condemnation for some. Fortunately, Lincoln at Gettysburg is not a reappraisal or yet another massive psycho-biography, but instead a meticulous in-depth textual analysis of the Gettysburg Address and an explanation of the circumstances which led to its composition and which surrounded its delivery. Wills analyzes the Address using the categories and tools of Greek oratory, and compares it line-by-line with Pericles' Funeral Oration, which of course is to be found in Book II of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. He makes a persuasive case for the central theme of rebirth through death, and the importance of the mid-nineteenth century intellectual pivot from Roman neo-classicism to Greek. He uses the simple principles expressed in the Address as a door into Lincoln's philosophy. Pleasantly for this reviewer's political sensibilities, he casts the Gettysburg Address as the critical step in Lincoln’s project of resurrecting the Jeffersonian principles of the Declaration of Independence. Wills argues that it was the Address which codified the idea of the United States as an entity based on philosophical principles, not ethnicity, history, or religion, and that with this argument, he redefined the entire American experience. There is much analysis, to that end, of Lincoln's choice of "Fourscore and seven years ago," which refers to the Declaration of Independence, not victory in the War of Independence or the Constitution as to the founding of the United States, and of Lincoln's repeated use in the 1850's of the Declaration as a political touchstone for his ideas.

Wills is probably America's foremost Catholic intellectual and is a former contributor to the National Review, but his book is interesting anyway. He certainly is adept at deploying his classical education: when he refers to the speech as having "the chaste and graven quality of an Attic frieze," you get the feeling that not only can he name a few Attic friezes, but that he knows how they are different from the Corinthian kind. He has no trouble plausibly deploying words like "deliquescing." His analysis displays fearsome erudition: the principles of oratorical criticism, the importance of Hugh Blair's 1783 "Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres," the interplay of neoclassicism and romanticism, the sublime nature of Daniel Webster’s second reply to Hayne in the nullification debate, and the interdependence of grammar and logic in Lincoln's compositions. If anything, Wills seems at times to give Lincoln too much credit: his Lincoln seems gifted with clairvoyance and apparently rapidly composed with Talmudic intricacy a speech using Periclean concepts he may never have learned and expressing not only the spirit of the times, but every laudatory principle of philosophy on which the country is based. It strikes this reader as more likely that Lincoln just really believed what he said and had been trying to express it for some time; that he had a gift with words, and the Address is the result of inspired writing and the ability to intuit the right words to express a deeply-held feeling. But for Wills, Lincoln was not a mystic or an intuitive writer but a fierce, scrupulous intellectual, a bit of a nationalist, and a sober political thinker aware of the constraints he faced. This is not to say that whatever demons he may have had (which historians are so fond of resurrecting) are absent from Lincoln at Gettysburg. There are some really ugly, surprisingly blunt statements from Lincoln’s campaign against Douglas which Wills is at pains to indicate are either instances of campaign pandering or the evolution of a careful, lawyerly distinction between slavery as an institution and Lincoln’s biological views of non-whites. This is not biography or even history, though: it is the study of an icon, and consequently Wills seems at time to conflate the actual Address with what he (and posterity) thinks it meant. Certainly Lincoln succeeded in redefining the war, and therefore the country, but whether he considered the Address alone sufficient seems unlikely. Necessary, yes, but not sufficient: he expressed this message many times to many audiences.

Of course an entire book about a speech of 272 words requires some stretching. There is a chapter about the architecture of cemeteries in nineteenth century America, and several appendices. There are enormous block quotes, though many feature splendid metaphors and the delightful sort of recondite formulations common to nineteenth century prose. Sometimes Wills seems a bit distasteful, as when he refers often to the Address as a "swindle," since Lincoln used it to focus on the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution. Yet there is a lot of interesting information: Lincoln, for instance, was not the keynote speaker. That honor went to the utterly forgotten Edward Everett, who was a Representative, Senator, President of Harvard, Ambassador to Britain, Governor of Massachusetts, and Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore. Everett went on for some three hours. There was music, a prayer, a dirge, and a benediction. Lincoln spoke for two or three minutes to little or no applause. Many of Lincoln’s most famous ideas came from a fiery Transcendentalist preacher named Theodore Parker, and the section about his influence is fascinating. There’s some stellar philology, and a few hilarious examples of Lincoln’s ability to deploy formidable linguistic ridicule.

In sum, Lincoln at Gettysburg is a fascinating book and one which contributes greatly to our knowledge of Lincoln and the milieu of his intellectual development, though it would perhaps have worked better as a lengthy scholarly article and with less of the author’s presence.

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