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Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library) Paperback – November 14, 2006
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"Garry Wills has given our nation's greatest gathering of words . . . new urgency . . . demonstrating that Lincoln's words still have power." -- William McFeely, The New York Times
"Dazzling . . . Wills is at his best, and his best may be the best that has ever been written about the Gettysburg Address as literature. Boldly revisionist and intoxicatingly original." -- Chicago Tribune
"Garry Wills' glowing reconstruction of Lincoln's words and the circumstances gives us a real understanding of what we rote-memorized as school children. This is what history is all about." -- Studs Terkel
"True to its historical antecedents and politically triumphant . . . A brilliantly creative reading of a critically important, indeed, culturally transforming, political document." -- The Philadelphia Inquirer
About the Author
Garry Wills is an Emeritus Professor of History at Northwestern University. Born in Atlanta in 1934, he has taught widely throughout the United States. A prolific writer and scholar, Wills is the author of more than twenty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Papal Sin, and What Jesus Meant. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Professor Wills's book attempts to plumb the well of how this speech came to be, its immediate, rhetorical, and historical roots. No, President Lincoln did not write it on the back of an envelope on the way up to Gettysburg. He dedicated considerable time to the speech in advance. He even gave a preview of it right after the Gettysburg victory, making a brief, off-the-cuff speech to people at the White House, celebrating that triumph and Vicksburg, referring to some of the themes he would expand upon. Yes, reaction to the speech was mixed -- the media of the day was as partisan as it is today -- and some newspapers publicly called it "dishwater utterances," with one paper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, openly hoping that the "veil of oblivion" would pass over the remarks. The keynote speaker, on the other hand, Edward Everett, who spent two hours narrating the course of the encounter, sent Lincoln a note wishing he had come to the point as well in two hours as Lincoln did in two minutes.
All of these subjects, and more, are taken up by Professor Wills, and his literary, historical, and scholarly analysis shows why this speech rapidly became an almost sacred text in the United States, all 272 words being reprinted on plaques across America, ranging from one side of the interior of the Lincoln Memorial to an obscure marker in a side alcove in the City Hall of Newark, New Jersey. One cannot go anywhere in America without being confronted with this speech and its vitally important message.
There is, of course, an irony. My father's generation was required in its public school to learn and memorize the speech. I was merely required to learn it -- we didn't have the time to memorize it. I tried anyway, and didn't do very well.
A few months ago, I got a call from a communications person at a public relations firm who wanted my boss, Cory A. Booker, at that time Mayor of Newark, to appear at her PR company with the "Grumpy Cat." I said, "Aren't all cats grumpy?" having had a number of them as pets.
She giggled and explained that this "Grumpy Cat" had just appeared on the NBC Today Show that morning, and they wanted to get a photo of him with the Mayor. I had just turned down requests from NBC and CNN to interview the Mayor, and knew that if he was seen posing with the "Grumpy Cat," those two networks would demand my head, and I shot the request down. I then asked why on Earth a "Grumpy Cat" was newsworthy, and she told me the cat had an agent.
"An agent? How do they communicate? One 'meow' is 'Yes?' Two 'meows' is 'No?'"
She giggled, and our conversation moved on to the importance of importance, and it wandered over to Gettysburg, as we were close to the 150th anniversary of the Address.
She didn't know what it was.
"You know who the 'Grumpy Cat' is, but you don't know what the Gettysburg Address is," I said, exasperated. "And you're in the communications business."
She giggled. "Is that the speech that starts off 'Four score and seven years ago?'" she asked.
I told her it was.
She wasn't familiar with it.
I told her to order this book, gave her the Amazon link, and the conversation wrapped up. Then I wondered how many other people in positions of importance in this land there are who cannot tell me the importance of Abraham Lincoln's words. They should all read this book. Then they can get back to me. There will be a test in the morning.
This is the book that explains the background for the single most important speech in American history, and maybe the world's history.
What I most enjoyed about this book is that it gave a generally interdisciplinary discussion of this great funeral oration by touching on the influences of the 19th century rural cemetery movement, the Transcendentalist movement, the Greek Revival movement, as well as the influences of the 19th century American abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. In explaining how the Gettysburg Address was written in just a few words, the author made it easy to understand by literally tearing the document apart by discussing why Lincoln wrote it in the style we are familiar with.
In conclusion, let me say that although the Gettysburg Address is easy enough for an elementary school student to recite, it takes an adult to fully understand the written history of this great speech, so Will's book served that purpose.
The oratory of ancient Greece with a touch of Shakespeare and we have perhaps the greatest eulogy ever written. I memorized those 272 words in grade school, knowing little of their meaning. Now reading Garry Wills who dissects the speech as well as place it in context before and after the battle, one truly feels Lincoln’s anguish for the fallen on both sides of Pickett’s Charge and Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top. Moves me to tears to recall Lincoln's anguish over the dead here at Gettysburg. Also recommend: Battle Cry of freedom by James McPherson.
The Prologue lays the groundwork of how the cemetery was laid out just months after the great battle and explains how President Lincoln and the orator Edward Everett were invited to Gettysburg to speak. The first chapter provides background about the history and themes of funeral orations like that of Pericles in ancient Athens, then discusses the “Greek Revival” among American educators and intellectuals in the early 19th century. Chapter 2 describes how the tradition of church graveyards morphed into the ideal of cemeteries in natural and rural settings as places of retreat and contemplation – even of regeneration, as when Lincoln extolled the transcendence of the dead heroes of Gettysburg.
The following chapters analyze how politicians like Daniel Webster and Lincoln articulated the Declaration of Independence, constitutional issues and the slavery question in the decades before the Civil War. The focus is on how Lincoln’s ideas developed and culminated in the address at Gettysburg. Wills appraises Lincoln’s careful choice of broad, inclusive words in his succinct 272-word address. He calls Lincoln a revolutionary not only for putting “the Declaration in a new light as a matter of founding law, but put[ting] its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution” (in which equality is not mentioned). He calls this a “correction” of the spirit of the Constitution and says it solidified our identity as one people dedicated to the proposition that we are all created equal.
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