Sunday, February 19, 2012

Literary Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is always first in those surveys of Presidential historians ranking the holders of the office. I've just found a couple of essays about Lincoln as literary figure. They are both by Douglas L. Wilson from the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. The first, "Lincoln the Persuader," is about Lincoln as a writer. Wilson tells us that "[H]is private secretaries Nicolay and John Hay declared emphatically in their joint biography of Lincoln, 'Nothing would have more amazed him while he lived than to hear himself called a man of letters.'" and that "The truth is that Lincoln’s writing, while frequently noted for its clarity, did not rate high by the prevailing standards of eloquence, which, like the architecture of the day, valued artifice and ornament." Standards soon changed.

Wilson, on how Lincoln wrote:
Writing is admittedly a solitary activity. While artists have made it possible for us to see Lincoln reading by firelight, swinging an ax, or speaking from a platform, depictions of him working at his writing desk are rare. An exception is provided by the president’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who late in life sent a correspondent this word picture of his father at work:
He was a very deliberate writer, anything but rapid. I cannot remember any peculiarity about his posture; he wrote sitting at a table and, as I remember, in an ordinary posture. As to dictation, I never saw him dictate to anyone, and it certainly was not his practice to do so. He seemed to think nothing of the labor of writing personally and was accustomed to make many scraps of notes and memoranda. In writing a careful letter, he first wrote it himself, then corrected it, and then rewrote the corrected version himself.
Although an unfamiliar pose, this is an especially revealing picture. Perhaps most striking is Robert’s identification of a distinctive characteristic that is very little recognized: Lincoln was not in the least put off by what most people consider the onerous labor of writing, even though he was a slow and “very deliberate” writer. For anyone interested in Abraham Lincoln’s presidential writing, this is an important point to keep in mind. .... [much more]
Lincoln had very little formal education but he read whatever he could get. He appears to have been very familiar with the King James Version of the Bible. He also read and memorized Shakespeare. The second of Wilson's essays, His Hour Upon the Stage," describes his love of several of the plays [he loved to recite and read aloud from them] and shows why he preferred reading them to the manner they were then performed on stage.

After attending a performance of Henry IV, Part 1 in a Washington theater, Lincoln wrote to the actor who portrayed Falstaff:
On August 17, 1863...Lincoln wrote an often-quoted letter to Hackett that remains the centerpiece of our knowledge of Lincoln’s devotion to Shakespeare. Arguably the most forthcoming of his personal letters, it may also be the least appreciated.
For one of my age, I have seen very little of the drama. The first presentation of Falstaff I ever saw was yours here, last winter or spring. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is to say, as I truly can, I am very anxious to see it again. Some of Shakspeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offence is rank” surpasses that commencing “To be, or not to be.” But pardon this small attempt at criticism. I should like to hear you pronounce the opening speech of Richard the Third. Will you not soon visit Washington again? If you do, please call and let me make your personal acquaintance.

Yours truly A. Lincoln.
For Lincoln, this is a remarkable letter. As his closest friends all testify, he was a deeply private man, and a cagey one as well. Although warm and affable in conversation, and sociable and apparently open-handed with strangers, he was nonetheless guarded and circumspect about revealing his feelings or intentions. That his “compliment” to Hackett on the actor’s performance is curiously hedged—and might not be a compliment at all—is thus not surprising.  .... [much more]