Abe and his mighty pen
The Biography of a Writer
Harper: 406 pp., $27.95
Many aspirants to high office now turn out a self-serving autobiography or two, but few of these (mostly ghostwritten) books have proved memorable. There is, of course, “Dreams From My Father” by President-elect Barack Obama. There’s also Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” which are minor classics of the environmental movement. Most campaign books, however, are forgotten even before the campaigns have ended. (I can remember Michael Dukakis’ “Creating the Future” and Lamar Alexander’s “We Know What to Do” suddenly appearing on bargain tables, remaindered for a pitiful $2.98.)
The post-presidential memoir is another all-too-familiar genre, giving us titles such as Richard Nixon’s “Beyond Peace” and Bill Clinton’s “My Life.” The better ones offer insight into the executive mind, but hardly any of them are lasting; once their immediate moment has passed, the books are forgotten by everyone but historians and political scientists. Only a few American presidents have been great writers. Thomas Jefferson is remembered for the stirring prose of the Declaration of Independence, and Ulysses S. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs” remain in print after 120 years. And Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are the only really literary presidents of the 20th century.
The most successful of all presidential scribblers, though, is Abraham Lincoln. In this lively biography, Fred Kaplan tells the now-familiar story of Lincoln’s life, but with a twist: This is the life story of a great writer. “Lincoln,” Kaplan writes, “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.”
The biography of a writer inevitably begins with the biography of a reader. “Abe was not Energetic Except in one thing,” his half-sister later recalled; “he was active & persistant in learning -- read Everything he Could.” Young Abe turned to books to escape what he saw as his illiterate father’s dead-end life. By the time he was a young man, a neighbor recalled, his “Conversation very often was about Books -- such as Shakespear & other histories and Tale Books of all Discription in them Day.”
Kaplan does a good job of tracing the young man’s reading habits, identifying favorite books and noting their influence on the mature politician. Lincoln began with the Bible and John Bunyan’s religious allegory, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Despite the Christian background, though, he was hardly devout: He learned from Christian classics a prose style that swells into poetry, but, as Kaplan explains, “any faith he had had in the literal truth of biblical claims slipped away.” He was never a churchgoer and, though he knew the persuasive power of a citation from Scripture, he didn’t take theology seriously.
He cared much more about history. He read early classics on American political figures, such as Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography” and Mason Weems’ “Life of Washington.” British philosophers and historians like Hugh Blair, David Hume and Edward Gibbon were favorites, as were Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne. These were standard authors in 19th century America, but Lincoln’s reading was unconventional in some respects. He had little interest in fiction, especially in the novel. He knew works by Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (on meeting Stowe he is supposed to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war”), but these were exceptions rather than the rule.
Poetry, on the other hand, was a lifelong passion. He adored the moody atmosphere of Thomas Gray, the satiric bite of Alexander Pope, the earthy and folksy language of Robert Burns, the lyric beauty of Lord Byron. He also had favorites among more recent American poets: A friend reported that, as a young lawyer, he “carried Poe around” as he traveled, “read and loved the Raven -- repeated it over & over.”
One writer, though, dominated Lincoln’s mind: Shakespeare, whose works he read until he learned many passages by heart. Kaplan chronicles Shakespearean echoes in many of his writings, referring to political speeches like his famous second inaugural address (“With malice toward none, with charity for all”) as “Shakespearean soliloquies of a sort.” More important, Lincoln used the plays to make sense of the world. He thought about the U.S. Civil War with the aid of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” plays, viewed racial difference through the lens of “Othello” and human nature itself through “Hamlet.”
These were the figures who shaped Lincoln’s literary consciousness and helped to transform the reader into a writer. Not all his literary efforts were successful. Around age 15, he wrote these less-than-stirring verses: “Abraham Lincoln is my name / And with my pen I wrote the same / I wrote it in both haste and speed / and left it here for fools to read.” Kaplan points out the “adolescent cuteness” of this and other early works. But when his style matured, he had no rivals among politicians and few in the wider world. Whether it was telling bawdy stories to intimates, drafting legislation or writing speeches to inspire a worried nation, Lincoln used language to maximum effect.
Kaplan is a biographer on a mission, and he doesn’t try to tell the whole story of Lincoln’s life and times. There’s little original research in the book, no surprising facts discovered in long-forgotten archives. Every source is easily available and has been discussed by other biographers. This book focuses, instead, as the subtitle promises, on “the Biography of a Writer,” and things that don’t fit easily under this heading are either touched on briefly or skipped altogether. There are good reasons for this, not least that it keeps the book to a manageable length.
Still, it feels odd that Lincoln’s entire presidency and the U.S. Civil War should occupy just 30 pages in a biography, and his assassination is mentioned only in the book’s final sentence.
But the portrait of a “personality and a career forged in the crucible of language” is powerful and convincing. Kaplan’s page-one summary captures the spirit of the book as a whole: “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.”