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Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 28, 2008

3.8 out of 5 stars 50 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this intriguing biography, English professor and literary biographer Kaplan (The Singular Mark Twain) analyzes Abraham Lincoln's writings, from the great civic anthems of his presidency to love letters, legal briefs, poems and notebook jottings, and finds a first-rate literary talent—a master storyteller with an earthy wit, sharp logic and an ear for poetic phrasing. From wide reading, Kaplan contends, Lincoln gleaned influences—an Aesopian moralism, a biblical sense of providence, a Byronic melancholy, a Shakespearean understanding of human complexity—that shaped his approach to issues and, through his words, the nation's attitude toward slavery and war. Kaplan sometimes overdoes his critical exegeses of Lincoln's more forgettable efforts ([Lincoln's] comic depiction of what happens when two people of the same sex are bedded has a heterodox clarity that reveals his familiarity with bodily realities) but many of these readings, like his recasting as free verse a speech on agricultural improvements, are eye-opening. The result is a fresh, revealing study of both Lincoln's language and character. (Nov. 3)
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From Booklist

Has Lincoln been done to death? Not hardly. Distinguished biographer Kaplan takes a new, solid, meaningful, even moving approach to the sixteenth president. Considerable previous attention has been paid to Lincoln’s articulateness in both oral and written word. The question is always, then, how did this woefully undereducated man become so good with words? It is Kaplan’s and his reader’s pleasure to follow an extensive chronological survey of the books and other writings Lincoln studied, from his boyhood (he “was born into a national culture in which language was the most widely available key to individual growth and achievement. . . . It was the tool by which he explored and defined himself”) to the presidential years (“lifelong development as a writer had brought the country a president with the capacity to express himself and the national concerns more effectively that any president ever had, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson”). Consequently, we witness the admirable growth—flowering—of an amazingly accomplished autodidact. This book is not an introduction to Lincoln’s life, to be sure; it is for readers who know the essentials. --Brad Hooper

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (October 28, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060773340
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060773342
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #710,654 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David Kinchen on December 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
BOOK REVIEW: Abe Lincoln: Writer Extraordinaire

By David M. Kinchen

Abraham Lincoln was a rising star in the new Republican Party when he was invited in August 1859 to speak at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society fair in Milwaukee at the end of September. He accepted the offer despite a busy court schedule, relates Fred Kaplan in "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer" (HarperCollins, 416 pages, $27.95).

Kaplan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Queens College in New York City, devotes more space in his book to this speech than he does to more famous literary efforts by Lincoln, including the Gettysburg Address. Using perhaps the best analytical mind of any of our presidents, Lincoln presented a powerful but subtle argument for freedom at a time when the nation was about to be torn asunder over slavery. To put the speech into its historical context, John Brown's raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), was only a few weeks in the future (Oct. 16, 1859).

Arranging the opening elements of the Milwaukee speech like a poem, Kaplan creates verse that is reminiscent of Walt Whitman, whose "Leaves of Grass" was first published in 1855 and revised several times thereafter.

Here are the opening lines from Kaplan's typographical realignment of the opening of Lincoln's September 1859 Milwaukee speech:

Every blade of grass is a study;
And to produce two,
Where there was but one,
Is both a profit and a pleasure.
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Format: Hardcover
Professor Kaplan does an excellent job of reconstructing the likely influences upon Lincoln as a developing writer and thinker.

Lincoln was a very guarded and private man, and so much of the evidence mined by Kaplan is necessarily circumstantial. In particular, he draws many inferences about Lincoln's private beliefs from authors he likely carefully read as a youth, such as Burns, Byron and Shakespeare. Professor Kaplan's expertise in literature and history makes him well suited to this task. And many of the inferences he draws do seem very plausible.

Still, I give the book only 4 stars rather than 5, because it seems that Professor Kaplan gets carried away at times with his speculations about Lincoln's thought life, projecting greater certainty than the circumstantial evidence would warrant, and downplaying contrary evidence.

For example, Professor Kaplan seems anxious to establish that Lincoln did not believe in the afterlife. He returns to that point repeatedly throughout the book. Yet he quotes from a speech that Lincoln gave in honor of Washington, which stated his belief that the deceased Washington was only sleeping, and that "the last trump shall awaken our Washington." (Page 78) Kaplan does not comment on the significance of these words -- he quotes the speech for another purpose. Yet Lincoln was very careful with the language of his public statements, seeking honesty and precision. And he chose his words on religion very carefully. Why then would he have given a speech stating his belief that Washington's soul was only sleeping, and that he would be resurrected at the end of time?

(I suspect that Lincoln was uncertain about the immortality of the soul in his early years.
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Format: Hardcover
Another book about Lincoln?

Yes! And a great book. From his love letters to the Gettysburg and second inaugural addresses, Lincoln was a master of putting great ideas into succinct words. In contrast to recent presidents, who are "too busy" to read much of anything, Lincoln and John Quincy Adams are the only presidents for whom literature and life were inseparable.

During his presidency, his two favourite volumes were Shakespeare's plays and the Bible -- both written in the same era -- in which he found an echo of the tragedy of the American Civil War. Most significantly, he did not often read to relax. Lincoln read to educate himself, to improve his mind and to understand the motives and methods of himself and others.

Think of the current financial crisis in which "deregulation" became liberty for bankers and a disaster for consumers. Lincoln understood such issues in terms of stories, such as "the shepherd who drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a Black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty."

"The claim that white Liberty requires Black servitude is a definition of liberty, in Lincoln's telling phrase, from 'the wolf's dictionary', and that dictionary must be repudiated," Kaplan wrote. Think of the impact today had former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan read and understood as much as deeply as Lincoln.

From his earliest days Lincoln used stories to illustrate his views. This explains the origins of the quality of his writing, both in terms of style and content.
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