Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

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by Fred Kaplan

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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 as a vehicle both to express complex ideas and feelings and as an instrument of persuasion and empowerment. Like the other great

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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 as a vehicle both to express complex ideas and feelings and as an instrument of persuasion and empowerment. Like the other great canonical writers of American literature—a status he is gradually attaining—Lincoln had a literary career that is inseparable from his life story. An admirer and avid reader of Burns, Byron, Shakespeare, and the Old Testament, Lincoln was the most literary of our presidents. His views on love, liberty, and human nature were shaped by his reading and knowledge of literature.

Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his audience with equal and enduring effectiveness. Kaplan focuses on the elements that shaped Lincoln's mental and imaginative world; how his writings molded his identity, relationships, and career; and how they simultaneously generated both the distinctive political figure he became and the public discourse of the nation. 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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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
The literature about Abraham Lincoln is so vast as to defy comprehension, yet historians and other scholars—not to mention novelists, poets, artists, sculptors, even composers—continue to find new and revealing things to say about this greatest of all Americans. Fred Kaplan's Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, is the latest case in point, a book that is certain to become essential to our understanding of the 16th president. To be sure, many others before Kaplan have dealt in various ways with Lincoln's love of literature and writing, but no one has explored the subject so deeply or found so much meaning in it.
—The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
Mr. Kaplan does a persuasive, highly perceptive job of explicating the influences that various authors had on Lincoln's thinking, as well as the role that writing played in helping the young Illinois politician articulate an identity of his own. In fact, as Mr. Kaplan sees it, language "was the tool by which" Lincoln "explored and defined himself," and as president he would try to find a language to "harness and implement" his political ideas "in a country whose alternative narrative would lead, he believed, to betrayal and disaster."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this intriguing biography, English professor and literary biographer Kaplan (The Singular Mark Twain) analyzes Abraham Lincoln's writings, from the great civic anthems of his presidency to love letters, legal briefs, poems and notebook jottings, and finds a first-rate literary talent-a master storyteller with an earthy wit, sharp logic and an ear for poetic phrasing. From wide reading, Kaplan contends, Lincoln gleaned influences-an Aesopian moralism, a biblical sense of providence, a Byronic melancholy, a Shakespearean understanding of human complexity-that shaped his approach to issues and, through his words, the nation's attitude toward slavery and war. Kaplan sometimes overdoes his critical exegeses of Lincoln's more forgettable efforts ("[Lincoln's] comic depiction of what happens when two people of the same sex are bedded has a heterodox clarity that reveals his familiarity with bodily realities") but many of these readings, like his recasting as free verse a speech on agricultural improvements, are eye-opening. The result is a fresh, revealing study of both Lincoln's language and character. (Nov. 3)

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Kirkus Reviews
How the 16th president used-and transformed-the English language. Famously self-taught, Lincoln's understanding of and familiarity with the language depended to a large degree on his reading, and Kaplan (The Singular Mark Twain, 2003, etc.) offers a thorough survey of all the sources that informed the young autodidact. From early influences like the Bible and Dilworth's Speller, to particular favorites like Poe's "The Raven," to the Enlightenment essayists and poets Pope and Milton, to Romantics Burns and Byron and, above all, Shakespeare, Lincoln heard background rhythms he would later masterfully adapt to his own emerging personal voice. Kaplan looks at halting childhood exercises; early political speeches and circulars; love letters and letters to friends; stabs at poetry (overpraised by Kaplan); eulogies for Zachary Taylor and Henry Clay; addresses to Congress; and even a brief to the Supreme Court in Broadwell v. Lewis. The author effectively demonstrates how Lincoln brought elements of his own personality-melancholy and humor, lawyerly precision and clarity, down-to-earth language and intellectual intensity-to prose that came to be defined as quintessentially American. Although the immortal presidential addresses receive scant attention here-perhaps because they've been exhaustively covered in fine books like Harold Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President (2004) and Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (1992)-by the time Kaplan places Lincoln in the White House, readers require no further guide to Lincoln's methods, nor any further convincing about the man's linguistic brilliance. A highly readable, ofteninsightful analysis of an unequaled prose master for whom writing was "the supreme artifact of human genius."Agent: Georges Borchardt
The Los Angeles Times
“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.”
Leon Wieseltier
Library Journal
Kaplan examines Lincoln's writings to consider how the politician drew on his gifts as a storyteller—along with his mastery of American vernacular and his extensive knowledge of the Bible, Shakespeare, and other popular sources—to exercise rhetorical power almost unmatched in his day and beyond. (LJ 9/1/08)

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The Biography of a Writer

Chapter One

"All the Books He Could Lay His Hands On"


At six years of age, for a few weeks in the fall of 1815, in the town of Knob Creek, Hardin County, Kentucky, the boy went to his first school, taught by a typical frontier teacher commissioned by local parents to provide children with basic skills and only sufficiently knowledgeable himself to rise modestly above that level. Teachers were in short supply on the frontier that ran along the western ridge of the Appalachians; beyond was the sparsely settled western portion of Ohio and the territories of Indiana and Illinois; southward, much of the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Cash also was in short supply. Material possessions were minimal. By modern standards it was a starkly rudimentary life.

In this community of Protestants the supremacy of the Bible as the book of daily life encouraged acquiring basic reading skills. Simple arithmetic came next. "His father," the grown-up boy later recalled, "sent him to this school with the avowed determination of giving him a thorough education. And what do you think my father's idea of a thorough education was? It was to have me cipher through the rule of three." Beyond that, education was a luxury that neither time nor money permitted. Intellectual curiosity in a society in which it had no likely practical reward was rare, except for the occasional child who, inexplicably, without any relation to who his parents were and what the community valued, was transfixed by the power of words.

Words and ideas were inseparable in a nation in which the Bible dominated. It was given full currencyas the source of the dominant belief system. It was also the great book of illustrative stories, illuminating references, and pithy maxims for everyday conduct. More than any other glue, it held the society together, regardless of differences of interpretation among Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. This was a world of believers. Here and there was a deist, an agnostic, or an atheist, but even those who had grounds of disagreement with Christian theological claims generally did so within the tribal circle and expressed themselves in small deviances, such as not attending church regularly or at all. Deistic voices from afar, from the East Coast, from the Founding Fathers, even from Europe, occasionally could be heard in the Appalachian woods and beyond. The deists rationalized religion, eliminated mystery: there is a creator, a God; otherwise, human beings are on their own, dependent on reason and action. But rural American Protestants in the nineteenth century much preferred miracle, redemption, brimstone, the literal truth of the Bible, and the apocalypse to come. As six-year-old Abraham Lincoln began to learn to read, his household text was the Bible.

His parents were fundamentalist believers, regular worshippers. Without education and illiterate, Thomas Lincoln was also blind in one eye and had weak sight in the other, which may have perpetuated his illiteracy. To sign his name, he made his mark. To worship, he recited and sang memorized prayers and hymns. Since words and beliefs were inseparable, he depended on cues from others and especially on his memory, which was the agent of sacred prayer and biblical knowledge. Both literate and illiterate American Christians often memorized long stretches of the Bible. And as young boys like Abraham became literate, they developed their ability to remember. From an early age, Lincoln had a tenacious memory. By modern standards, few books were available to him. Those he could recite almost by heart.

His first teacher was his mother, who had learned to read but not write. Thin, slight, dark-haired, Nancy Hanks was born in 1783 in Virginia, the daughter of Lucy Hanks and an unidentified father. In 1806, she married Thomas Lincoln. The next year, in Hardin County, Kentucky, where they had settled, she had her first child, Sarah; on February 9, 1809, Abraham; then another son, who died in infancy. Unlike her prolific Hanks predecessors and contemporaries, she was to have no more children.

What young Abraham learned from his father had nothing to do with books. In his later testimony to the absence of family distinction, he gave short shrift to his father's contribution to his upbringing. His stocky, muscular, dark-haired, large-nosed father, about six feet and almost two hundred pounds, seemed a Caliban of the carpentry shop and the fields. Thomas Lincoln's illiteracy, though, was less remarkable to his son than what the boy took to be his father's disinterest in learning to read and his lack of ambition in general. It left him a marginal man who at an early age had fallen out of the mainstream of American upward mobility, a plodder without ambition to rise in the world. But he had not been born to that necessity. The father that the young adult Lincoln knew had been substantially formed by circumstances, though for the son the totality was subsumed into a sense of his father's character. It was not a character that he admired. And it was one that he needed later to distance himself from. Thomas Lincoln "was not a lazy man," a contemporary of Abraham's remembered, but "a piddler—always doing but doing nothing great—was happy—lived Easy—and contented. Had but few wants and Supplied these."

Both father and son knew less than modern scholars about the paternal family's history, mostly because Thomas Lincoln had been cut off from much of his past. He knew only that his great-grandfather came from Berks County, Pennsylvania, to Rockingham County, Virginia, where his grandfather, the Abraham he named his son after, had four brothers. Everything before was lost in the haze of illiteracy and family tragedy. Actually, the first American Lincoln, Samuel, had emigrated from England to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. A next generation had been Quakers in Pennsylvania, where Samuel's grandson, Mordecai, had prospered. Mordecai's son, John, became a well-to-do farmer in Virginia. And it was one of John's sons, Abraham, who moved in the 1780s from Virginia to Kentucky with his five children, three of whom were sons, Mordecai, Joseph, and Thomas. In 1786, while planting a cornfield, Abraham was killed by Indians. As his body lay in the field, ten-year-old Thomas sat beside it. An Indian ran out of the woods toward him. Fifteen-year-old Mordecai, concealed in the cabin, aimed and shot the Indian in the chest. It was the eponymous story of Thomas's life, retold many times by a man who had a gift for narrative, got along with his neighbors, and attended church regularly.

Primogeniture gave his eldest brother the family possessions. The other sons were expected to move on. Thomas was not sent to school, even to learn arithmetic. A manual laborer as a teenager, then a carpenter, and then a farmer, he managed sustenance and little more. He made rough tables and cabinets on commission, built barns and cabins, made coffins. When he eventually acquired property, it provided mostly backbreaking work and disappointment. He had bursts of pioneer energy, resettling twice. Decent in every way, he struggled through life, gave no one any trouble, and made do. He started more strongly than he finished and, as he grew older, did only the irreducibly necessary.

In spring 1806 he had a glimpse beyond Kentucky. Hired to build a flatboat for a local merchant, he took it, loaded with goods, to New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. As a carpenter and day laborer, he accumulated enough cash to buy, soon after his son was born, almost 350 acres in Hardin County. He still owned some of the 200 he had purchased in 1803, on Nolin River, near Hodgenville, called Sinking Spring Farm. Then, in 1811, he bought 230 acres on Knob Creek, northeast of Hodgenville, to which he moved his family. On each farm, he built a one-room log cabin. So, too, did everyone else of his station and means, and the small commercial buildings of the local townships were identical, at most slightly larger. Thomas Lincoln's land transactions, including promissory notes and delayed sales, had title and debt complications. In the end, their actual value amounted to the equivalent of three or so years of what he could save from his earnings. It was not inestimable, given his start, but it left a narrow margin and next to no cash.

The Biography of a Writer
. Copyright (c) by Fred Kaplan . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Larry1939 More than 1 year ago
I received this book for Christmas and immediately began reading it. I found it to be very insightful and captivating. The writer gives a new perspective on Abraham Lincoln. This is not so much a biography as it is a study of his writings and speeches at several stages in his life. The reader is shown how his personality and beliefs develop in those stages. You see him mature and he becomes a true individual to you as you read his personal, private, and public writings. This book is a definite read for anyone who enjoys reading about Lincoln as well as any student of history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
excellent new insight on Abraham Lincoln. In particular how he believed how important good writing is to all humanity. Through his writing he strived to be terse but yet use the right words and structure to get his ideas across with the result he was a tremondous influence on the country and as a result a great leader and president
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is really cool!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was supposed to be about Lincoln as a writer, but it seems to be more about his life or his proposed philosophy. The author sounds as if he knew what Lincoln FELT, as if he were there with him. That turns into biased writing unless the author includes a primary source from which to base his opinion. The author is trying to show Lincoln as an Enlightenment man who really did not believe in God or the Bible (revelation as truth) as much as we would think from his writing and that his decisions were based on "reality," as the author would put it, and Lincoln did not depend on his faith in God to make the important decisions of his presidency. I would tend to think that a non-believer would not have spent as much time reading the Bible or quoting it as Lincoln did if he did not believe in it. A better book to read about Lincoln's writing is The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, by Ronald White, Jr.