Kentucky voices

Ky voices: Neil Chethik on why Lincoln was a great writer

November 19, 2013 

Neil Chethik is executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy in Lexington. Reach him at neil@carnegiecenterlex.org

Kentucky is known for its outstanding, award-winning writers, but we rarely recognize the Kentuckian who was arguably the most artful of all. That's because he was also, not incidentally, America's greatest president.

Abraham Lincoln should not have become a great writer. He was born in Larue County in 1809, a time of few schools and high illiteracy. He was discouraged from academics by his father, a subsistence farmer who needed Abe's back more than his brain.

But Lincoln conquered reading anyway, most likely helped by relatives and itinerant teachers. As a young lawyer, his first writings were overly sentimental and ornate, critics say. But he gradually trimmed the excess; eventually, he established brevity and rhythm as hallmarks of effective speechmaking.

"His writing has the naturalness of ordinary speech," commented New York Times critic Charles McGrath, "but none of the windiness." Indeed, Lincoln's two best-known pieces of writing — the Gettysburg Address, delivered 150 years ago today, and his Second Inaugural Address, delivered a month before his death in 1865 — are both shorter than 750 words.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke for less than five minutes, delivering 10 painstakingly crafted sentences totaling 277 words. The other main speaker at Gettysburg, Massachusetts statesman Edward Everett, droned for more than two hours, logging 13,000 words. Which speech do we remember? Lincoln's, of course. And why do we remember it? For its brevity, yes, but also its substance and style.

Theodore C. Sorensen, the renowned former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, wrote in 2009 that Lincoln was a master of alliteration ("Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray"); of repetition ("We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground"); and of contrast and balance ("The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present").

According to Sorensen, in fact, Lincoln was one of only three presidents who "could have been a successful writer wholly apart from his political career." (Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt were the other two, Sorensen believes.)

Lincoln's poetic sense was extraordinary, and he used it to rally support and induce fear. At Gettysburg, Lincoln vowed to his fellow Northerners that "these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth." Two years later, at his Second Inaugural, he added: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds ... ."

But in that same speech, he showed his savage side, warning Southerners that if they continued to resist, the Union and its troops would fight with endless resolve, "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword."

We Kentuckians will continue to honor our novelists from James Lane Allen to Barbara Kingsolver, our poets from Robert Penn Warren to Nikky Finney. But let us not forget those whose writing made history as well.

Neil Chethik is executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy in Lexington. Reach him at neil@carnegiecenterlex.org.

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