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Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer Paperback – February 2, 2010
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“Absorbing.” (Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic)
“Lively. . . . Kaplan does a good job of tracing the young man’s reading habits, identifying favorite books and noting their influence on the mature politician. . . . Powerful and convincing. . . . Kaplan is a biographer on a mission.” (The Los Angeles Times)
From the Back Cover
For Abraham Lincoln, whether he was composing love letters, speeches, or legal arguments, words mattered. In Lincoln, acclaimed biographer Fred Kaplan explores the life of America's sixteenth president through his use of language both as a vehicle to express complex ideas and feelings and as an instrument of persuasion and empowerment. This unique account of Lincoln's life and career highlights the shortcomings of the modern presidency, reminding us, through Lincoln's legacy and appreciation for language, that the careful and honest use of words is a necessity for successful democracy.
Illuminating and engrossing, Lincoln brilliantly chronicles Abraham Lincoln's genius with language.
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If the author had stopped there, or had fast-forwarded to Lincoln's writing/oratory when it was in full bloom during his presidential years, the book would have worked well. But there are many chapters, several of them mired in pedantry, about Lincoln's years as a small-town lawyer and businessman, and about the constant struggle of the auto-didact to rise above his humble past.
Since Lincoln is the most written-about president in our history, this is much too much information. Mr Kaplan has a difficult time staying on task. His discussion of the Lincolns' marriage is fascinating, but he gives you enough to whet the appetite and then more or less apologizes for getting off-track.
Worse than that, his conclusions at the end of the book as to where Lincoln's successors rank in terms of their comparative writing abilities is neither informed nor convincing. Considering that this book is only two years old, it is remarkable, if not laughable, that he refers to Jimmy Carter as one of the best writers to occupy the Oval Office, while failing to even mention the oratorical abilities, not to mention writing skills, of either John F Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. His blanket statement that "after Roosevelt, less talented speechwriters took over and the president's own language hardly mattered to the process" is simply inaccurate. Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan all had extensive writing and speaking backgrounds when they entered the presidency and continued to have a major influence on the words they uttered while occupying the Oval Office.
All in all, this book has its moments, but the author should have drawn more inspiration from his subject and erred on the side of brevity.