December 4, 2008: Lincoln’s Sword

I’m currently reading Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words. I have no idea how I found this book — what pushed me to reserve it from the library — but I’m glad I did it. It’s a consideration of Abraham Lincoln as a writer, particularly how he used language to shape the story of the Civil War. The flyleaf says it best:

Lincoln’s Sword tells the story of how Lincoln developed his writing skills, how they served him for a time as a hidden presidential asset, how it gradually became clear that he possessed a formidable literary talent, and it reveals how writing came to play an increasingly important role in his presidency.

 One of the things that’s already clear is that Lincoln was a persistent, dogged reviser, and it seems evident to me that he believed that only the right word would do — but not the right word on its own — the right word in play with allthe other words, the whole always greater than the sum of its parts. He was able to see possibilities others didn’t. Henry Seward supplied him with a rough draft of a possible conclusion to his First Inaugural Address; Lincoln took things Seward had crossed out, such as ‘better angel’ and turned them into poetry:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies but friends_ We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, streching [sic] from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

If you love history, if you love writing and language, read this book.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Teresa
    Dec 04, 2008 @ 20:26:50

    Sounds like a book which might interest my hubby as well 🙂


  2. katycooper
    Dec 05, 2008 @ 20:37:39

    I finished it tonight — it was fabulous.


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