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, often insightful analysis of an unequaled prose master for whom writing was “the supreme artifact of human genius.”