Lincoln: American Civil War and Mr. Kaplan Essay

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A former Illinois state legislator, with a short stint in Congress under his belt, comes to national prominence with speeches that showcase his eloquence. He is, according to the author of this new book, something of a cool customer: calm and graceful under pressure, “a difficult man to read, who loved jokes and stories” but who was otherwise remarkably self-contained.
This former lawyer runs as “a stoic moderate,” embracing the virtues of “balance, temperance and restraint”; as a campaigner he emphasizes a reasoned “analysis of issues rather than personalities.” His poetic gifts as a writer, shaped by a lifetime of avid reading, are matched by a lawyer’s appreciation of precision; his writings project “a persona of dignified but amiable authenticity,” and do so with a “concision of phrasing and logical tightness.” In his run for office he is criticized for being too inexperienced to be president and for failing to support the troops, because he’d questioned an American invasion of a country he claimed was “in no way molesting, or menacing the U.S.” His vision of America is an optimistic one of reconciliation — to “help make strangers into neighbors,” in the words of this biographer, “to create sympathy between regions and nations, and, by inference, between the North and South.”
The man in question — and the subject of this fascinating new book — is Abraham Lincoln, not Barack Obama, who self-consciously invoked memories of the Civil War president in 2007 by announcing his candidacy for the White House in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln’s hometown for 17 years. Although Fred Kaplan, the author of “Lincoln,” never mentions Mr. Obama by name, it’s hard to read this volume without thinking of the current president-elect — who turns out to share a startling array of philosophical and literary qualities with his predecessor, as well as an equanimity of demeanor — and this book’s focus on the role that language and writing played in one president’s life promises to shed light on the role they may play in another’s.
Certainly Lincoln’s writings and literary gifts have been examined in detail many times before, most famously by Jacques Barzun — and Edmund Wilson, who argued that “alone among American Presidents, it is possible to imagine Lincoln, grown up in a different milieu, becoming a distinguished writer of a not merely political kind.” Garry Wills’s seminal 1992 book, “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America,” deconstructed that best known of Lincoln’s speeches, while Ronald C. White Jr. tackled the second Inaugural Address in his 2002 book, “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.” More recently Douglas Wilson, in “Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words,” probed Lincoln’s often agonizing creative process, looking at the evolution of particular speeches and essays, and his capacity to grow as a writer and a leader over the years.
This new biography remains heavily indebted to these earlier works, as well as to Douglas Wilson’s 1998 book “Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln.” But 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.”
Perhaps because so many previous scholars have focused on Lincoln’s best known writings as president, Mr. Kaplan devotes most of his attention to his subject’s earlier years, spending only one chapter on his time as commander in chief. Much of his attention is directed at the pivotal role that the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays had in shaping Lincoln’s poetic sense of language and his