Book Review: Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills

My annual Lincoln Day book for 2009 is Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992) by cultural historian Garry Wills (previously, I’ve read Wills’ works on Catholicism Why I’m A Catholic and Papal Sin).  In this book Wills sets out to analize the 272 words spoken by Lincoln when he consecrated the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863.  In a prologue, Wills sums up the events of Lincoln’s visit to Gettysburg.  Here he debunks some common myths.  Lincoln did not write his speech on the back of the envelope en route to Gettysburg.  In fact, Lincoln loathed extemporaneous speech and spent much time preparing his words including this speech which he probably drafted prior to leaving Washington.  The other myth is that the crowds were shocked by the brevity of Lincoln’s remarks especially in comparison to the lengthy oration by Edward Everett.  According to the programs and contemporary accounts, Everett was the primary speaker of the day with Lincoln only expected to make a few ancillary remarks to officially dedicate the cemetery.

It’s what Lincoln made of those few remarks that Wills dedicates the rest of the book to explicating.  Wills sees Lincoln’s funeral oratory in the tradition of Greek Revival then in vogue.  Lincoln’s address is compared favorably to the tradition of the ancients such as Pericles in that it contrasts things  as the mortal and immortal, the exceptionalism of Americans, word and deed, and life and death. The culture of death in 19th-century American – and especially during the Civil War (see This Republic of Suffering for more detail) – also informs the Gettysburg Address.  Cemeteries such as Mt. Auburn in Cambridge served a moral and instructive role and Gettysburg National Cemetery would fit into that continiuum.

For Lincoln, of course, that lesson is “the new birth of freedom” passed down to us from the Declaration of Indpendence.  Lincoln saw the Declaration as the nation’s true founding document,as opposed to the Constitution, as it holds the promise of equality for all in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  He also sees that through the revolution and joint declaration of independence the states are bound as a union, not as a simple agreement among autonomous states.  This informs the way in which Lincoln pursues the war treating the Southern states as insurrectionists within the union as opposed to a foreign power and only resorting to emancipation where it is a military necessity since he believes it cannot be done by unilateral decree.  The Gettysburg Address has resulted in many if not most Americans viewing the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Union the way that Lincoln did:

“…the professors, the textbooks, the politicians, the press have overwhelmingly accepted Lincoln’s vision.  The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.  For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it.  It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln so feckless.  The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind.  By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed.  Because of it, we live in a different America.” – p. 146-47

The final chapter analyzes Lincoln’s oratorial style, its brevity, rhythmns, and lack of flowery language and tropes common to speech writing of the time (see Everett’s speech in the appendices for a contrasting example).  Writes Wills, “Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of Huckleberry Finn.  It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address,” (p. 148).  In fact Wills contends that Lincoln prefigured “soundbite politics” by more than a century by crafting his words to meet the needs of the new technology of the telegraph.  Perhaps the satirical Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation is more on the mark than its creators intended.

This shorts but incisive book concludes with appendices that include research on the actual text that Lincol delivered that day.  There are multiple drafts and the newspaper accounts of the day are not all in agreement.  The Library of Congress has a good online exhibit of the many drafts of the address, as well as the only picture of Lincoln of that day.  There are also the full text of Everett’s oration and two ancient Greek forebearers (I confess I skipped these).  Finally, there’s a little detective work on where Lincoln actually stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  All and all, a fascinating a rewarding read for Lincoln Day ’09!

Title Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Re-Made America
Author Garry Wills
Publication Simon & Schuster (1992), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date 1992
ISBN 0671769561 / 9780671769567

Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

Sarah Vowell is an acquired taste and it’s taken me some to appreciate her, especially her nasal voice and deadpan delivery.  Which makes it all the more odd why I chose to listen to The Wordy Shipmates (2008) as an audiobook read by the author, but I did.  And it was great!

Vowell and I share in common a fascination with colonial history, especially that which took place between the big events like Plymouth Rock and the Salem Witch Trials.  As Vowell details early on in this book the typical American’s understanding of the Puritans is informed by television sitcoms (and before that popular culture such as the poems of Longfellow).  The referencing of popular culture and topical events by way of analogy is a rhetorical device Vowell uses throughout the book which can be irritating but is often illuminating.  Make no mistake, while The Wordy Shipmates is often humorous is also thoroughly researched of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century and a serious effort of seperating Puritan myth from fact.

For one thing, people like to describe contemporary America as a Puritan nation, primarily due to our squeamishness when it comes to sexuality or the popularity of fundamentalist religion.  Vowell points out that there are commonalities with our Puritan forebearers in the idea of American exceptionalism or the nation’s many misguided attempts to spread the American way around the world in the spirit of the Massachusetts Bay Seal with the Indian pleading “Come over and help us!”  On the other hand Vowell contends that contemporary Americans do not see the need for the intellectual rigor to write diaries, speeches, sermons, pamphlets and books – the wordiness of the title – the way the ordinary Puritan did in the 17th century or their New England descendants continued to practice into the 1900’s.  I do believe I’ve read that there are more bloggers in New England than any other region, so  perhaps I’m part of keeping this wordy tradition alive.

One fascinating essay examines Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leader and early governor John Winthrop’s A Modell of Christian Charity which includes the oft-quoted phrase a “citty upon a hill.” Vowell explicates the sermon and discusses how it’s been misunderstood and misappropriated ever since.  Ronald Reagan frequently cited it, always as a “shining city on the hill” in speeches such as his farewell address, while Mario Cuomo countered with a 1984 DNC keynote speech “A Tale of Two Cities.” From Vowell’s reading of Winthrop’s sermon she explains how Reagan, Cuomo, and many others all get it wrong by missing the central message of community that were it proposed today would be seen by some as socialism.

Much of the book focuses on Winthrop, the upstart Roger Williams, and the positively rebellious Anne Hutchinson.  Through them and other stories the reader learns of the differences between Seperatist and Puritan, theological pamphlet wars, and more bloody wars with the Pequot.  I’m going to say that this book is not for everyone as I’d expect both the experienced historian and the novice will be put off by Vowell’s approach, but to those of us in-between I think this is a worthwhile read for understanding the complexity of the Puritans and their legacy.

A couple of other reviews:

Title The Wordy Shipmates
Author Sarah Vowell
Publication Riverhead Hardcover (2008), Hardcover, 272 pages
Publication date 2008
ISBN 1594489998 / 9781594489990

Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, Part I

As mention in my February 2nd post, I’ve started reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in installments via DailyLit.  The installments come through and rss feed to my Bloglines account and I’ve been working on the best way of reading them.  I requested the long installment but to DailyLit that just means I get four installments a day.  I find it easier to read at Bloglines than at the DailyLit website since then I can read everything with clicking to the next page.  It also lacks chapter headings and the divisions in chapters annoyingly come mid-installment.  Despite those small problems I’m enjoying rambling and bumbling through the novel.

First impressions on the first five “episodes”:

  • I’m amazed at how many themes of life from 1904 in Ireland appears in this novel: Hamlet, Irish subservience to the English, Irish Republicanism, the Russo-Japanese War, settlements in Palestine, anti-semitism, the Irish woman who can’t understand the Irish language, the Phoenix Park Murders, Irish Catholicism (and it’s not so pleasant cultural hold), and death, death, death.  Not to mention all the Homeric allusions. I expect an annotated edition of Ulysses to have a lot of footnotes and rewards the reader who knows about all these things that seem to be just tangentially mentioned.
  • Stephen Dedalus is a quote machine.  Check out these lines from Joyce’s go-to guy for a good soundbite:
    • Kingstown pier, Stephen said. Yes, a disappointed bridge.
    • –I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.
    • –History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
    • Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
      – That is God.
      Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
      – What? Mr Deasy asked.
      – A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.
  • I’m greatly amused that Leopold Bloom has a lucky potato that he carries in his pocket.
  • I find the scene where Bloom sits in on a Catholic Mass oddly moving even though it was satirical.  Especially since the Mass was in Latin at the time and Bloom notes the one bit that’s done in English.  When I went to Mass in Ireland it was said in English with bits in Irish.  We move forward.

To help me on my journey through Ulysses, I’ve started to listen to a podcast by a cheerful, enthusiastic young woman named Paigerella.  She reads the books in installments and appropos to the book adds her own stream-of-conciousness commentary as well as her life at grad school, thoughts on Italy, shooing her cat, and beat poetry.  How meta is that?  I also picked up The Bloomsday Book: A Guide through Ulysses by Harry Blamires on Paigerella’s recomendation for further assistance through this complex but beautiful (and sometimes hillarious) text.

Book Review: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A Mercy (2008) is the latest novel by one of my favorite writers Toni Morrison.  Having read all of Morrison’s novels – except Paradise which I struggled through twice and still haven’t completed – I found it different from the rest of Morrison’s oeuvre, but I can’t put my finger on what.  I thought it may be the historic setting, but that’s true of Beloved and Jazz as well.   I thought it may be that it lacked magical realism, but then I remember there’s a man who returns from the grave to haunt his house and a girl with a very realistic imaginary friend.  Maybe it’s because it’s fairly accessible to read, but Love and Song of Solomon are relatively straightforward as well.  Besides A Mercy is deceptively complex and would reward a rereading should I find the time to do so.

Not knowing what A Mercy is not about, I can tell you it is about a set of people living in colonial America in the 1680’s.  They are European, Native American, and African and share in common themes of uprootedness and slavery (both real and emotional).  They are joined together on the plantation of Jacob Vaark, a trader and a reluctant slaveholder, although presented as more of collector of orphans.  The novel focuses on the women on the plantation: Vaark’s wife Rebekka haunted by the death of her children, an Indian small pox survivor named Lina, a mysterious survivor of a shipwreck named Sorrow, and an African slave Florens who was given to Vaark by her mother to repay her mother’s master’s debt.  Florens is the central character in search of love and rootedness which finds eventually with the unamed blacksmith.  Ironically, the only self-possesed character, the blacksmith is a free African man.

This is a good novel, definitely worth reading and re-reading.

A mercy / Toni Morrison.
Publisher: New York : Knopf, c2008.
ISBN: 9780307264237 : hc $23.95
0307264238 : hc $23.95
Description: 167 p. : map ; 25 cm.