Friday, April 22, 2011

"What can a rebuttal do to an incantation?"

Abraham Lincoln was more intellectual than you've ever been told. The Gettysburg Address was more thoughtfully and carefully prepared than you've ever understood. And its impact was at least as enormous as you've always thought it was.

I recently saw Black Swan at the cinema. And as good as that movie is, I wonder if it's hard to make a movie when you have Tchaikovsky's lush Swan Lake score as the musical backdrop for whatever is happening on the screen. Not to take anything away from the actors who did a first rate job in their respective roles, or the director who created some stunning visual images. But wouldn't you really also have enjoyed listening to the soundtrack while watching an unedited live webcam pointed out onto Central Park?

Likewise, I imagine it's hard to write a bad essay if you get to quote Lincoln's Gettysburg Address repeatedly. But Garry Wills has gone beyond that. In Lincoln at Gettysburg he's accomplished a couple of things that as a geeky historian type I find thrilling. First, he's explained exactly what the Gettysburg Address was and what it was not (for instance, it was NOT the keynote address of the day--that was a long-winded and best-left-forgotten speech by Edward Everett). And second, he's explained WHY it has become what it is for Americans--essentially a post-war (post Civil War, in case there's confusion about that) re-commitment to the principles of our nation's founding. But it was also a work of rhetorical genius that resulted from President Lincoln's intellect and learning. Not exactly the story as widely understood in American popular mythology. This is an important book, worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1993. Now time-tested, it's still a great read that will change how you look at Lincoln, how you hear the words and phrases of the Gettysburg Address, and how you view the last 150 years of American history.


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