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Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America Paperback – June 12, 1993
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A former professor of Greek at Yale University, Wills painstakingly deconstructs Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and discovers heavy influence from the early Greeks (Pericles) and the 19th century Transcendentalists (Edward Everett). The author also probes Lincoln's decision to rely more on the Declaration of Independence than the U.S. Constitution, a decision Wills says represented a "revolution in thought." He speaks effusively of the 272-word address: "All modern political prose descends from [it]. The Address does what all great art accomplishes. [I]t tease[s] us out of thought." Wills' book won the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.
The Philadelphia Inquirer True to its historical antecedents and politically triumphant...A brilliantly creative reading of a critically important, indeed, culturally transforming, political document. -- Review
Mr. Wills is deadly serious about words. . . . [He] scratch[es] the earth away from the stone and lay[s] bare the language. -- The New York Times Book Review
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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.
In LaG, Wills does offer his opinions on several historical controversies that have long dogged Lincoln’s address. He tells the reader, for example, where he thinks Lincoln stood as he delivered his remarks. And he establishes the provenance of several copies of this address—those possessed by Nicolay, Hay, Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss—in order to clarify what wording Lincoln actually used as he spoke. Furthermore, he does provide Everett’s full speech (more than two hours of Hellenistic reference and Gettysburg battle reportage) and funeral orations by Pericles and Gorgias. These are in the book’s appendix and worth scanning, since they do establish context and precedent for Lincoln’s elegance, messaging, and brevity.
Nonetheless, the highpoints of this rewarding book for this reader examine: 1) what Lincoln meant to accomplish in his remarks; and 2) the intellectual influence of transcendentalism on Lincoln’s intellectual assumptions. Here:
o Intentions: According to Wills, Lincoln considered the constitution a document of imperfect political compromise. In contrast, he believed the Declaration of Independence represented the best statement of the American mission—namely, that all men are created equal. In the Gettysburg Address, what Lincoln accomplished is to take this mission—equality—and position it as the BIG issue implicitly addressed in the solemn event at Gettysburg and the carnage of the Civil War. In this way, he transformed the war, which to that point was largely viewed as the product of sectional disagreements and states rights, into an effort to regain first principles.
Interestingly, Wills points out that this focus on the Declaration (“four score and seven years ago” counts back to 1776) provoked immediate protest from Northern Democrats, who protested in editorials that the U.S. Constitution does not use the word equality. Regardless, Lincoln, through his eloquence, did reformulate the mission of the war. Writes Wills: “They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.”
o Transcendentalist influence: Lincoln, sui generis to be sure, was also a 19th century man and influenced by the intellectual currents of his time. These included Transcendentalism, which attempted to discern and feel ideal forms embedded within experienced reality. This disposed Lincoln to favor the Declaration, where he believed America’s political ideals are stated. And this made him view the constitution—which does not mention slavery—as an imperfect political document that, with luck, would move, over time, closer to our founding ideals.
There’s more of interest in this book. This includes Wills’s discussion of Daniel Webster, who profoundly affected Lincoln’s thinking on the Union; and Wills’s comments about the rural cemetery movement. He observes: “The dedication of Gettysburg must, therefore, be seen in its cultural context, as part of the nineteenth century’s fascination with death in general and cemeteries in particular. “
Honor the 150th Anniversary.
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.