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The Words That Remade America

by Garry Wills

Pub Date: June 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-671-76956-1
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 Another attempt by journalist-historian Wills (Under God, 1990, etc.) to peel away layers of myth to extract the original context and continued relevance of an American institution--as he did in his trilogy about the Enlightenment influence on early America: Cincinnatus (1984), Explaining America (1981), and Inventing America (1978). Memories of the grisly Battle of Gettysburg were hardly faded when, nearly five months later, a cemetery was erected on the site. At that time, against all odds, Lincoln not only brought dignity to this hellish battleground, but ensured forever that Americans would interpret the Constitution and the Civil War fought to preserve it through the egalitarian prism of the Declaration of Independence. He ``revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.'' Here, as in nearly all his other work, Wills recalls the historical setting to argue in a contrarian mode, taking issue with those who exalt Lincoln at the expense of the day's principal speaker, Edward Everett (Lincoln's secretaries Nicolay and Hay devoted more attention to Everett's two-hour address in their biography of Lincoln than to their boss's three-minute remarks, he reminds us). Uncharacteristically, with appendices and notes totaling about a third of the book, this work feels more padded than Wills's other studies, and he cannot resist his occasional Jesuitical argumentation and intellectual ostentation (a chapter on the oratory of the Greek Revival is particularly egregious). Yet he is brilliant, and he proves it with insights into how Lincoln's speech reflected the Unionist rhetoric of Daniel Webster, transcendentalism, and the imagery of the rural cemetery movement- -and, in an especially stunning section, how Lincoln set a new standard for American prose style with 272 economically chosen words. Though Wills continues to wear his erudition on his sleeve, he is also, as ever, provocative--and, here, eloquent and moving too. (B&w photographs--not seen.)