Lincoln: The Biography Of A Writer, by Fred Kaplan
In a marketplace of books that is crowded with books about Abraham Lincoln, quite a few of which have found their way into my own reading collection , it is always intriguing to see how an author seeks to differentiate himself from other authors and his (or her) book from others’. In this particular case, Kaplan takes the inspired approach of viewing Lincoln as a writer in the canon of American literature, and viewing his writings from the point of view of their literary antecedents, and viewing the speeches as organized essays rather than merely political works. It is surprising, given the obviously studied and literary quality of much of Lincoln’s writing and its poetic resonance that this is not a more common approach to handling Lincoln’s writing, but it is good that Kaplan finds a successful niche that allows him to draw notable insights from Lincoln’s writings as literature.
In terms of its structure and organization, the book is fairly conventional. The book begins with the childhood of Lincoln, looks at his young adulthood where he sought to make his way in the world, his early success politically as a state legislator for Illinois where his organized mind and skill at writing was an obvious advantage, and his frustrated romantic relationships, culminating in a policy match with a woman who did not appreciate his writing skills, a period of eclipse between 1849 and 1854, and then his rapid rise to national prominence and his time in the presidency. To be sure, the author is not alone in looking at this particular narrative, but the fact that he digs up some impressive and obscure writings of Lincoln, including Lincoln’s one case before the United States Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Taney wrote a hostile review that served as a precedent for Dred Scott, something that sounds entirely like Taney’s phony brand of original interpretation, and the fact that he goes through the effort to figure out Lincoln’s reading, which is no easy task because Lincoln was a notoriously voracious reader despite living a busy life.
It is these touches that make this an immensely worthwhile book. Despite the fact that this book can be a bit harsh on Mary Todd Lincoln as well as Stephen Douglas, although no more harsh than Harry Jaffa, it should be noted, the author generally appreciates the broad-mindedness of Lincoln and points out over and over again that Lincoln was strongly affected by the pessimism of his Calvinistic upbringing even if he was not conventionally religious at any point during his adult life. Despite this fact, Lincoln’s use of biblical language was notable, and he was clearly deeply influenced by his reading of the Bible, as well as numerous less elevated texts. Part of the joy of reading a book like this is a “spot the influence” game that demonstrates Lincoln’s command of the English language and immense intellectual achievements despite his lack of formal education. It is the combination of aspiration and perspiration that make Lincoln’s self-education so notable, and within the grasp of anyone who can read widely and well and is willing to put forth the immense effort required to overcome a background of difficulties. In light of his achievement as a writer and reader, it is all the more sad that Lincoln was so distant from his own family, many of whom simply could not relate to his drive to understand his world and improve his station through mental effort, drives that were frequent and underlying aspects of much of his writings. This particular book will do much in helping others to see Lincoln as one of America’s foremost literary minds, including being a greatly underrated poet.
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