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Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1992)

by Garry Wills

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1,487138,560 (4.14)40
In a masterly work, Garry Wills shows how Lincoln reached back to the Declaration of Independence to write the greatest speech in the nation's history. The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was asked to memorialize the gruesome battle. Instead he gave the whole nation "a new birth of freedom" in the space of a mere 272 words. His entire life and previous training and his deep political experience went into this, his revolutionary masterpiece. By examining both the address and Lincoln in their historical moment and cultural frame, Wills breathes new life into words we thought we knew, and reveals much about a president so mythologized but often misunderstood. Wills shows how Lincoln came to change the world and to effect an intellectual revolution, how his words had to and did complete the work of the guns, and how Lincoln wove a spell that has not yet been broken.… (more)

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» See also 40 mentions

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An interesting, yet difficult book to get through. I found the author of this book to be very intelligent and well educated. He knew his stuff in such tremendous detail that it was astounding. However, I found the book to be a let-down for me. The book was an academic book that seemed to be more of a criticism of other historians views of Lincoln and his writings than it was about the actual Gettysburg Address. There were parts of the book I greatly enjoyed that dealt with the creation and set-up of cemeteries and the actual thought and word play Lincoln used in the Address. However, as a whole, I thought that all of the Greek references and things of the like were a bit too dry. This might be on me more than it is on the author, but that is my take. I have read so many great books dealing with Lincoln that I thought this one lacked any excitement at all. ( )
  msaucier818 | Apr 9, 2018 |
If you're interested in the language of the civil war era and why it was considered the age of great orators, this is a fantastic book to read. It is a bit dry in nature, but I was completely fascinated by it. Includes the entire or partial texts of many of Lincoln's speeches as well as those of some of his contempories. Explains in detail why the Gettysburg address became such an important moment in history. ( )
  Melynn1104 | Jun 28, 2017 |
excellent book... ( )
  aegossman | Feb 25, 2015 |
Biographies of Lincoln have never been in short supply. Opinionated, contradictory essays on the sixteenth president have been as numberless as stars. Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg stands out from the crowd. One of the most learned works about Lincoln, this book uses the occasion of Lincoln’s most famous speech to construct an intellectual biography of the man who gave it.

Garry Wills had written on Lincoln before, and the present book can be seen, in more than one sense, as setting the record straight. In 1964 the conservative Atlanta native rapped Lincoln in The National Review as a dreamy romantic. At the time Wills endorsed Willmoore Kendall’s view that Lincoln’s true legacy was the latter-day “ceasarism” of know-it-all liberals.

By 1978 Wills had tempered his earlier enthusiasm for John C. Calhoun, but he still wrote disparagingly of Lincoln as a romantic under the spell of Transcendentalism, “that school of faintly necrophiliac spirituality.”

Of course, many writers have worked to undermine the sacrosanct image of the martyr-president with the largest marble statue in Washington, D.C. For instance, in the 1970s orthodox Freudians imposed a large-scale Oedipal conflict on Lincoln’s political career, combing his early speeches and writings for signs of a will to symbolically “kill” the “Founding Fathers” and to pin the blame on “evil brother” Stephen Douglas. One of the pleasures of Lincoln at Gettysburg is its elegant refutation of this kind of thesis-driven approach to Lincoln, in which writers always find what they expect to find.

Wills also dispels persistent myths about the Address itself, such as the one about its having been composed from scratch during the train ride to Gettysburg. More significantly, Wills takes on reactionary attempts to drain Lincoln’s best-remembered speech of any real significance. These really are, as his subtitle expresses it, "words that remade America."

Wills argues that the expertly crafted speech, delivered at a carefully chosen time and place, not only “sweeten[ed] the air of Gettysburg, but … clear[ed] the infected atmosphere of American history itself” by substituting a new constitutional past for the ones that his audience had brought to Gettysburg with them. This seeming miracle was not accomplished in a stroke of divinely guided rhetorical lightning, as too many writers have suggested, but rather as the culmination of years of practice by a politician who was consistent in his thought and always prepared his speech texts with care.

In Wills’ portrayal, Lincoln is a master not only of the classical rhetoric of Greek democracy, of biblical allusion, and of choice imagery, but also of a taut, forward-looking American vernacular that established a new classical standard for political speech. Because of his way with words, the Civil War came to mean, for most Americans, what Lincoln decided it should mean. “The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration.”

With Lincoln at Gettysburg Wills sets aside his own former judgments, presenting Lincoln as a remarkably consistent and logical political thinker, “a Transcendentalist without the fuzziness,” who recast the American constitution as a perpetually “unfinished work” advancing toward the ideal of liberty. Transcendentalism is still in the picture, but this time Wills breaks new ground in showing how the design and dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery proceeded from a culture that placed an educative and regenerative value on mourning and melancholy. Lincoln recognized, in Wills’ view, how well the time and place of the Gettysburg dedication suited his call for “increased devotion” to “a new birth of freedom.”

Wills also sets the record straight by dismissing persistent myths about Lincoln’s performance at Gettysburg. It is not for nothing that Wills appropriates the main title of William Barton’s 1930 book on the Gettysburg Address, an effort which Wills dismisses in a footnote as “frequently inaccurate.” Wills’ appendix on the text of the Address is an exemplary primary-source study that dispels much confusion, much of it created by earlier studies. In this respect, Lincoln at Gettysburg deserves to supplant its earlier namesake.

Lincoln at Gettysburg also lives up to its title by establishing the setting in which Lincoln’s Address was first heard, from the railroad snarls and scramble for overnight lodging in the small Pennsylvania town to the actual location of the speakers’ podium, on a rise just outside the cemetery, to keep visitors away from its still unfilled graves. Wills restores Ivy League orator Edward Everett to his rightful place as the principal “draw” for the occasion. It was Everett whose promised two-hour oration brought to Gettysburg the thousands on whom Lincoln worked his magic. This book appends the complete annotated text of Everett’s speech, together with two variants of Lincoln’s Address. A surprising addition is the author’s own translations of funeral orations by Pericles and Gorgias, which support his lucid primer on Greek rhetoric.

The Lincoln who emerges from Wills’ account is not the moral giant enshrined on the Mall in Washington. Lincoln at Gettysburg does not shy away from Lincoln’s resort to crowd-pleasing racist rhetoric or his “chew & choke” strategy toward the hostile South. But Wills’ discussion of these issues is nuanced and fair, and his explication of the rhetorical drabness of the Emancipation Proclamation is particularly convincing. This is a writerly (and extremely well written) book, and some historians may feel that it therefore overemphasizes the historical significance of skillful communication. Wills might reply in the words of Pericles, that “the uninformed man resents as overstatement any praise that goes beyond what he feels capable of.” Be that as it may, even skeptical readers will benefit from a close engagement with this book.
1 vote Muscogulus | Oct 7, 2013 |
2590. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, by Garry Wills (read 12 Mar 1994) (Pulitzer Nonfiction prize in 1993) (National Book Critics Circle criticism award for 1992) This 1992 book is excellent, and appears definitive on its subject. This book also contains Edward Everett's speech (delivered on the same occasion)--one I had never heretofore read. It is a great speech, full of verbiage i found tremendously moving. Thus this entire book is well worth reading ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | May 11, 2013 |
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