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Originally published Thursday, December 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Lincoln the orator revered the written word

"Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer" by Fred Kaplan shows that President Lincoln revered language as "the force that makes and moves people and nations." President-elect Obama was recently spotted with Kaplan's book tucked under his arm.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Lincoln: The Biography

of a Writer"

by Fred Kaplan

HarperCollins, 400 pp., $27.95

Abraham Lincoln is remembered for many things, but rarely as a writer. Yet as Fred Kaplan points out in this superb biography, nearly all of Lincoln's great orations — his "House Divided" speech, the Gettysburg Address, his First and Second Inaugurals and many others — first took shape as handwritten essays.

Kaplan, professor emeritus of English at Queens College in New York, notes that Lincoln did not like to speak extemporaneously and wrote many of his speeches in advance. Now Lincoln deserves to be remembered as one of America's finest men of letters, Kaplan says.

President-elect Obama recently was sighted leaving a Chicago dinner party with this book tucked under his arm.

Lincoln revered language as "the force that makes and moves people and nations," Kaplan writes. But his great facility for language did not come quickly or easily.

Lincoln's father was illiterate, his mother could read but not write and Lincoln himself had little formal education. Instead, he learned the value of words by reading everything he could get his hands on.

As a boy, Lincoln's "household text was the Bible," and although he never accepted it as an infallible religious document, he treasured many of its parables and proverbs. Some later emerged in his essays and speeches, especially his famous "House Divided" speech.

The textbook "Dilworth's Speller," which taught theology and moral behavior as well as grammar and spelling, was another influential work Lincoln read as a boy. Inspired by some of the verse in Dilworth's, the young Lincoln started writing his own poems, a pastime he resumed as an adult.

Kaplan praises some of the poetry, but it now seems clear Lincoln was a better politician than poet.


Lincoln also was deeply influenced by the works of Shakespeare, Burns and Byron, and Kaplan shows how many thoughts expressed by these ageless writers found their way into Lincoln's own prose.

Quoting many of Lincoln's texts, Kaplan demonstrates how their author organized his thoughts and blended them into logical, effective and often soaringly eloquent treatises.

Lincoln "studied composition, continuing his analysis of model essays and speeches from the ancients to the moderns that his first anthologies had provided," Kaplan says.

"Washington's sensible succinctness and Jefferson's eloquent simplicity were recent additions to the canon. ... But the most effective writing and speech, Lincoln concluded, eschewed preaching for calm persuasion, a demonstration not of superior oratorical powers but of succinct expression in the service of truth."

Lincoln "was incapable of separating principle from politics, philosophical values from electoral competition. That made him that rarest of public figures, one for whom language mattered so much that he felt compelled to use it honestly even when linguistic deceit was the order of the day."

The 16th president also used wit "with calculated restraint," Kaplan writes. "As a language device, it was particularly potent."

Lincoln was a tough editor, too. One example: After delivering his moving farewell address to the citizens of Springfield, Illinois, he edited the text to produce the "official" version that endures.

As for the Gettysburg address, Kaplan calls it one of the "supreme dramatic monologues of American literature." Kaplan is no slouch with words himself. This intensely researched, thoughtfully written volume is more than biography, it's also a practical and inspiring guide for writers.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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