Friday, January 30, 2009

Ode to Abe

From Jurek Martin, Ode to Abe,, January 31, 2009:

Even Mencken, never charitable, thought the Gettysburg address sublime: “Eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection.” He could not, of course, resist adding that it was a one-off and based on a false premise. Ibsen and Whitman wrote odes to Lincoln. But none of them addressed the quality of his writing.

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University professor, did so, however, in a marvellous 1959 essay. Even in his early political pamphlets and court cases, Lincoln showed control over words, says Barzun. A parallel emerged between the shortness of an Aesop fable “and the mania Lincoln had for condensing any matter into the fewest words”.

According to legend, Lincoln scribbled down the Gettysburg address on a train to the event. He did not write fast but he did write a lot. He stuffed his notes in his desk, his pockets and his stove-pipe hat, to be retrieved when needed. When called to speak, all had already been thought through.

Barzun praises Lincoln’s literary art: “[His] precision, vernacular ease, rhythmical virtuosity and elegance may at a century’s remove seem alien to our tastes,” he writes. But out of Lincoln came Mark Twain, and out of Twain came Sherwood Anderson, Mencken and Ernest Hemingway. His legacy endures.

See The Library of America, The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now, Edited by Harold Holzer