Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lincoln - The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan

Not another Lincoln bio. Aren't there like a million of them? Yep, give or take but this is different from any of the others I've read. The author answers the "why another" question with "...there is no modern study of the origin and development of Lincoln's literary sensibility and genius... Lincoln's reading in the textbooks and literary anthologies of his youth, the literature that helped shape his mind and his prose style, is an essential part of the story."

Kaplan does a first rate job of looking at the available literature of Lincoln's youth, his favorite authors (especially poets) of his adulthood and the speeches by others who Lincoln admired and shows the echos of those sources in his famous and not so famous essays. Kaplan calls them essays rather than speeches because Lincoln almost never spoke extemporaneously. He laid out each formal speech in a tight format that made the point while allowing for inserted jokes and stories (mostly "earthy") as the situation dictated. He wrote decent poetry, made two of the best speeches by any politician ever and could well be called the political Mark Twain. Kaplan also focuses on areas skipped over by everyone else I've read, including his unhappy (and coerced?) marriage, his treatment of the Indians, and his alienation from his father. Lincoln's use of language and his personal philosophy of how honest language is a critical factor in presidential leadership brings into sharp focus why the presidential utterances of the last eight years have been such an unsatisfying experience and what contributed in great part to his (GWB) impotence as a leader. For anyone who is interested in Lincoln, this is a must read.

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