Book Review: Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik

Author: Adam Gopnik
Title: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
Publication Info: Knopf (2009), Edition
ISBN: 0307270785


My annual Lincoln/Darwin Day reading is a short book published for the bicentennial of their birth. This book is an extended rumination on the lives of two men born on the same day who helped create the modern world.  Gopnik sees both Lincoln and Darwin as men of words, Lincoln with speech and rhetoric and Darwin with his novelistic prose.  The title and a major issue upon which Gopnik builds his narrative is the debate of Edward Stanton’s eulogy for Lincoln, whether he said “Now he belongs to the angels” or “Now he belongs to the ages.”  This book is an interesting but not essential addition to the literature about these two fascinating men.

Favorite Passages:

“The thesis is that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization; our heroes should be men and women possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves and to speak for us all.  Authoritarian societies can rely on an educated elite; mere mass society, on shared dumb show.  Liberal cities can’t.  A commitment to persuasion is in itself a central liberal principle.  New ways of thinking demand new kinds of eloquence.  Our world rests on science and democracy, on seeing and saying; it rests on thinking new thoughts and getting them heard by a lot of people.” p. 22

“The attempt to make Lincoln into just one more racist is part of the now common attempt to introduce a noxious equilibrium between  minds and parties: liberals who struggle with their own prejudices are somehow equal in prejudice to those who never took the trouble to make the struggle.  Imperfect effort at being just is no different from perfect indifference to it.” -p. 49

“… for the first time, and despite much conventional religious piety — there’s a nascent sence throughout the liberal world that the deaths of young men in war will never be justified in the eyes of a good God, and never compensated for by a meeting in another world.  Their deaths can be made meaningful only through a vague idea of Providence and through the persistence of a living ideal.” – p. 120

Recommended books: Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression by Jacques Derrida, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen, and Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills.
Rating: ***


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

Lincoln — Darwin — 200!

I’ve been looking forward to this day for some time as it is the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most influential people of the 19th Century.  Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on February 12, 1809.  In addition to a shared birth date, influence, and lots of controversy, Lincoln & Darwin share a sense of humility according to Robert McHenry of the Britannica blog

“Darwin, we might say, believed in the power of the human intellect; and at the same time he acknowledged its weaknesses. Lincoln was only too aware of the human capacity for sin; and at the same time he sought to prevail over it through forgiveness. Is it too trite, in this so sophisticated age of doubt and irony, to note simply that each man did the work he found himself called to, and did it with unequalled grace? Can we set aside the suspicion that we, most of us, are not up to their example and instead rejoice that they were of our species?”

They also both rocked the chin hair:

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub lists some more coincidences between the two men.  Adam Gopnik wrote a book about both men called Angels and Ages which I’ll have to read for next year’s Lincoln-Darwin Day book.

Speaking of books, today I began reading Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills and I ‘m already learning much about Lincoln’s most famous speech at the consecration of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  Meanwhile, school children across the nation simultaneously recited The Gettysburg Address this morning.

Previous Lincoln-related books I’ve read include:

Looking for more to read about Lincoln check out Six More Books about Lincoln from The Christian Science Monitor and reading recommendations for all ages from School Library Journal.

While I don’t make a special effort to read books about Darwin each year, here’s my Darwinian readings:

One can also read the Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online.

Don’t feel like reading?  Listen to some great podcasts:

For more on Abraham Lincoln:

For more on Charles Darwin:

The Lincoln Cent was introduced to commemorate the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, so today is also the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Cent.  Let’s hope they don’t stop making cents.

Finally, here’s a cool YouTube video that claims to show Every Known Photo of Abraham Lincoln: