Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
by Fred Kaplan, Harper, 2008
In her landmark book Team of Rivals, presidential scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin at one point refers to Abraham Lincoln as our nation’s only “Poet-President”; and then, as if all her readers faithfully grasp her meaning, she duly moves on with her narrative. In this respect, Kearns is like most Lincoln biographers. They freely remark on the president’s eloquence but typically have little insightful to say about it.
Fred Kaplan, however, is different. A literary scholar but not a historian, Kaplan argues in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer that Old Abe was a writer first and politician second. Kaplan poses, in fact, that Lincoln’s power as a politician, and as president, grew from his extraordinary way with words.
Kaplan is the first Lincoln biographer I know of to fully examine this American icon’s command of language. The result is a fresh perspective on a man whose life has been dissected endlessly during this bicentennial year. In taking this approach, Kaplan focuses on some of Lincoln’s lesser-known literary accomplishments. The two Kaplan concentrates on the most are Lincoln’s eulogy for Zachary Taylor in 1850 and his address at the Milwaukee agricultural fair in 1859. Kaplan notes that Lincoln’s eulogy for Taylor is “one of his least-appreciated but most formally interesting literary achievements.” As for the address at the Milwaukee fair, Kaplan pays tribute to the argument Lincoln makes for the collaboration of knowledge, invention and science toward increasing agricultural yields. As Kaplan writes, Lincoln had “found a level of literary expressiveness that he had never before fully achieved.”
While eulogizing Taylor, Lincoln described the legendary general’s relief of Fort Brown during the Mexican War and, as he spoke, deftly shifted the point of view between the fort’s defenders and their rescuers. That shift, Kaplan writes, is what made the eulogy “formally interesting.” Indeed, he suggests almost that Lincoln anticipated the end-of-century “literary impressionism” of such giants as Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford.
As for the “literary expressiveness” of Lincoln’s Milwaukee speech, Kaplan marvels at the future president’s ability to fashion his celebration of agricultural plenitude into a Whitmanesque prose poem, shaped by alliteration, assonance, triadic rhythms that naturally divide into lines, and a circular structure that begins and ends with blades of grass and other “specimens—each a world of study within itself.” It is, Kaplan concludes, “Lincoln’s best poem.” These exegeses are persuasive, sometimes brilliant, and they underscore Kaplan’s insistence that Lincoln wrote essays, not political speeches. Yet they also expose what seems to me a problem with his method. He observes of the Taylor eulogy that, in portraying Taylor (dead after scarcely four months in office) as embodying leadership rooted in “personal qualities rather than…presidential achievements,” Lincoln found a mirror image of the characteristics he valued in himself.
Lincoln, Kaplan points out, did what good poets do: evoke an external image to explore his innermost self. Or, as the Irish writer Sean O’Faolain once said, literature communicates by indirection.
But no politician communicates by indirection; and Lincoln was a politician. It makes sense to argue, as Kaplan implies, that Lincoln’s greatest writings were forms of meditation—as surely the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural (given only cursory attention here) both were. It makes less sense to suggest that Lincoln was talking across his audience to himself, something literary meditations do. It is also curious that Kaplan omits the powerful public letters Lincoln wrote to Erastus Corning and James Conkling.
Kaplan has done a service to Lincoln scholars and general readers alike by reconstructing Lincoln’s self-education, and showing how the books he read and reread may have shaped his mind. Thankfully he has gotten inside Lincoln’s mind and given us some understanding of how it worked.
Editor’s note: Bart Friedman died shortly after submitting this review. An accomplished professor of English and Irish literature, he had a passion for the Civil War that undoubtedly stemmed from his research of his great-great-grandfather Abraham, who rode with John Buford and the 9th New York Cavalry. Bart cherished a family photograph showing his ancestor at the dedication of the 9th New York memorial at Gettysburg.