Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lincoln: The Twain
Of Our Politics

'For Lincoln, words mattered immensely. His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his high valuation of their power, mark him as the one president who was both a national leader and a genius with language at a time when its power and integrity mattered more than it does today. His was a personality and a career forged in a crucible of language. The novelist William Dean Howell's claim about his friend Mark Twain, that he was the "Lincoln of our literature," can effectively be rephrased with the focus on our 16th president: Lincoln was the Twain of our politics. Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience or posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness.'
--from the introduction to Fred Kaplan's Lincoln--The Biography of a Writer, one of the more interesting new entrants to the endless stream of books that continue to add to our understanding of our greatest president.


At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I have been thinking about this for days and figured I'd write out what was on my mind since no one will probably notice it since it is on an older post.

The book looks fascinating. Have you read it yet? I am reading Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years, and had been wondering at his thirst for knowledge. Perhaps you are familiar with these passages, but will write them out for the sheer delight of sharing them.

“Education came to the youth Abe by many ways outside of schools and books. As he said later, he ‘picked up’ education. He was the letter writer for the family and for neighbors. As he wrote he read the words out loud. He asked questions, ‘What do you want to say in the letter? How do you want to say it? Are you sure that’s the best way to say it? Or do you think we can fix up a better way to say it?’ This was a kind of training in grammar and English composition.

He walked 30 miles to a courthouse to hear lawyers speak and to see how they argued and acted. He heard roaring and ranting political speakers—and mimicked them. He listened to wandering evangelists who flung their arms and tore the air with their voices—and mimicked them. He told droll stories with his face screwed up in different ways. He tried to read people as keenly as he read books. He drank enough drams of whisky to learn he didn’t like the taste and it wasn’t good for his mind or body. He smoked enough to tobacco to learn he wouldn’t care for it. He heard rollicking and bawdy verses and songs and kept some of them for their earth flavor and sometime meaningful intentions.

. . .

In spare hours Lincoln had sessions with Mentor Graham, the local schoolmaster, who told him of a grammar at John C. Vance’s, six miles off; he walked the six miles, brought back the book, burned pine shavings at night in the Onstot cooper shop to light Samuel Kirkham’s English Grammar. As he went further, he had Bill Greene hold the book and ask him questions. In the New Salem Debating Society, Lincoln in his first speech opened in a tone of apology, as though he wasn’t sure of himself. He surprised both himself and those hearing him. James Rutledge, president of the society, was saying there was ‘more than wit and fun’ in Abe’s head.’”

I have thought about the hours he spent alone in thought as he worked hard, walked many miles, and learned from everyone and every experience. Sometimes isolation is a catalyst, and passions for friendship, knowledge, all kinds of things can develop. I wonder how to nurture the positive passions of those around me, and in myself. We all will not or cannot aspire to the civil, moral, spiritual, and intellectual greatness of Lincoln, but there are clues to be found, treasures to be mined in the life of a man who certainly changed the face of the earth in a way that continues to awe and inspire us.

This may seem off the beaten path, but to me it is not. I have a friend who is psychotic, autistic, and a deaf mute. He is passionate about learning and is horribly isolated and longs for friendship. His isolation has spawned a unique way of handing language. Sometimes his use of words is stunningly beautiful, perfectly appropriate, but oddly strange because he never learns anything from conversation. This isn’t some of the most beautiful stuff, but it will show you his passion, and a little of why I take the time to be his friend and encourage him.

"Are you still having a pneumonia at home? I hope you will not atrophy from it. . . I am very proud that I already processed the SAT collegiate vocabulary as I did try to do my best. I am telling you new words that I know as "achromatic" and "phosphorescent". Did you already hear from them yet? I presume you are great teacher! You also know a lot of oral vocabulary by talking to others. I also know how to communicate oral vocabulary with sign languages. So I will acquire Random House's Unabridged American Sign Language Dictionary book from Barnes & Noble company. I will incessantly ascertain more sign languages as real words."

As writers, you have the unique opportunity to bring your interests to the attention of a wide audience. It is important to follow those strings of thought with passion and life, with intelligence, compassion, and a humanity that comes from living a life learning from everyone; learning what it might be like to walk in their shoes.

It is important to hone your craft, but the more I look at Lincoln, I realize he sharpened his skills because he had so much to say. We need to take the time to absorb REAL life, allowing it to mix up inside of us, simmer, and then burst from our lives with wisdom and power. This quiet revolution happens within, and unlike unwise power, it inspires the better nature of those around us. Grounded in reality, it is respectful, humble, and has a beauty that over time shines all the more brightly because of the contrast of those who think power is something to be grasped for personal gain.

I'm glad our new president is a Lincoln fan, and hope some of the many lessons of Abe's life serve to help him in the difficult days he has ahead.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

No, I've not yet read this book, which has only just been published. But I plan to sometime in the new year. And that Sandburg stuff is all new to me, so thanks for adding it.

I do indeed think that the key to writing is having something to say. So many people dream of pursuing this work, and many do pursue it, for what I would consider less than serious reasons. The only reason to do it is to share things that you think are important, and also to join a conversation that includes reading lots of other things that others are saying.


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