Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lincoln's Language and its Legacy

A lengthy review article from Adam Gopnik, at the New Yorker, "ANNALS OF BIOGRAPHY: ANGELS AND AGES":
The tendency to obsess over single words and phrases reflects, in part, the semi-divine status of Lincoln in American history. But it also reflects a desire to show that rhetoric and writing were as essential to his career as acts and orders and elections. In the past twenty-five years, and particularly since the publication of Garry Wills’s “Lincoln at Gettysburg” (1992), language and its uses has become a central Lincoln subject. Two prominent strains of rhetoric run through the period—the Biblical and the classical—and political ideas tend to get tinted by whichever of them the speaker uses. Reading Edward Everett’s Gettysburg address, the two-hour set speech that preceded Lincoln’s and was meant to be the real event of the Gettysburg commemoration, one is startled to see how relentlessly classical it is in tone and analogy: Everett goes on and on about Marathon and the Greeks and the Persian invasions, in order to “elevate” Gettysburg and the Union soldiers. Lincoln’s rhetoric is, instead, deliberately Biblical. (It is difficult to find a single obviously classical reference in all of his speeches.) Lincoln had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis.

What strikes a newcomer to Lincoln’s speeches, however, is how rare those famous cadences are; their simple, resonant language—“with malice towards none, with charity for all”; the concluding and opening lines of the Gettysburg Address—is memorable in part because there isn’t much of it. The majority of Lincoln’s public utterances are narrowly, sometimes brilliantly, lawyerly—even, on occasion, crafted to give an appearance of inevitability to oratorical conclusions that are not well supported by the chain of reasoning that precedes them. The undramatic, small-print language in which Lincoln offered the Emancipation Proclamation is the most famous instance of his mastery of anti-heroic rhetoric. (Karl Marx said that it reminded him of “ordinary summonses sent by one lawyer to another.”)

But Lincoln believed in legalism. One of his first public speeches, the Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum, in Springfield in 1837, declared a radical insistence on “reason” to be the only acceptable form of public discourse; the cure for the prevalence and epidemic of violence in American life would be “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason”: “Passion has helped us, but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason—cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason—must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.” Lincoln tempered but never really abandoned that conviction. His rhetorical genius lay in making closely reasoned argument ring with the sound of religious necessity...
Grab a cup of coffe and read it all. It's well done.