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Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred…
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Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (2008)

by Fred Kaplan

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Some of the greatest presidents in US history are those who were readers and writers. This book really highlights Lincoln's writing side and offers up all sorts of incredible information (and it's really inspiring). It also might make you miss the good ol' days (when presidents were incredibly well-read and wrote insanely fluently).
  justagirlwithabook | Jul 31, 2018 |
From the start, he needed to overcome internal and external opposition by willful acts of self-definition, the ambitious farm boy autodidact becoming a splitter of words and ideas rather than fence rails.

I'm having trouble writing this review because I have so much to say. I tried channeling the 16th President by asking myself WWAW (What Would Abe Write)? That didn't help much, so I'll just boil it down to one sentence: This book is fantastic.

OK, maybe a few more sentences. As the title declares, Kaplan examines Lincoln's life through the prism of the writings he left behind. Those writings include not only published essays and speeches but also letters and fragments of letters he wrote to friends. Kaplan begins in Lincoln's childhood, looking at the books that we know young Abe had access to at home, especially once his stepmother joined the household. Some of them are familiar and unsurprising — Shakespeare, the Bible — and others raised my eyebrows. Lord Byron was a favorite source of inspiration for Lincoln, as was ... Scottish poet Robert Burns?! Apparently Lincoln often quoted entire poems or long passages of Burns' poems from memory, even the saucy bits.

It was fascinating to learn that Lincoln wrote on all sorts of topics, not just political events and issues of the day. Following a trip in 1844 to his childhood home in Indiana, he wrote what appears to have been intended as a four-canto poem in the tradition of Thomas Gray, whose "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" was a favorite of Lincoln. Kaplan also cites influences from Wordsworth, Burns and Chaucer in the works, only three of which have survived. The excerpts that Kaplan quotes are melancholic and humorous in turn, reflecting on memories that gave him both pain and pleasure.

Lincoln also used writing as a way to explore his thinking on subjects of the day. He wrote and re-wrote, constantly refining his thoughts. He used writing as a way to help him clarify his own beliefs and political opinions. And he seldom spoke extemporaneously — at a minimum he worked from a set of notes for each speech he gave, in order to ensure that he could lay out his thoughts and positions in a coherent way. As Kaplan comments on a speech given to a temperance society, "The argument continues in Lincoln's characteristic style — a prose so lucid to read it is like looking a hundred feet through clear water."

Kaplan expends most of his energy and analysis to the years before Lincoln became president; in an eight-chapter book the presidency is entirely confined to the final chapter. That's one reason I can't view this book as the end-all and be-all of exploring Lincoln's life or his genius for language. The other reason is that while partial quotations of Lincoln's writing to illustrate specific points are plentiful, Kaplan does not include any speech or essay in its entirety to allow us to fully absorb Lincoln's genius. Perhaps there are limitations on the amount of text that can legally be quoted? At any rate, it was a loss I felt keenly.

I probably don't need to say that I highly recommend this book. While there's a fair amount of detail about Lincoln's life beyond his writing, some readers may find value in also reading a more comprehensive biography, especially one that focuses on his presidency. As for me, I now feel a great deal of affinity for the man who declared:

Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it — great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. ... Its utility may be conceived by the reflection that to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it. ( )
3 vote rosalita | Mar 2, 2018 |
I really like words, and I really like Abraham Lincoln, so I was pretty excited to read this book. It took me a couple of months to get through it though, partly because almost every time I sat down to read it I would start dozing within 15 minutes. I love that one of my favorite presidents is the most well read president, but the writing of this biography wasn't particularly exciting. ( )
  AngelClaw | Feb 2, 2016 |
It seems I am rapidly becoming a fan of literary biography. With this and the Dostoyevsky volume, I've become almost addicted. I need more.

This shows the development of Lincoln, his literary tastes, his oratory, and his writing style over the years, and showing the authors that influenced him. Wonderful stuff. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
A different approach Abraham Lincoln, focusing on his life and legacy through the lens of his writing. Kaplan contends that Lincoln may be of few Presidents to write his own speeches and probably the last one. In addition to his oratory Kaplan analyzes Lincoln's political writings, poetry, and even his raunchy jokes and puns. As a self-taught man, writing played an important role in Lincoln's education as well. This book provides a unique take on the life of the great leader. ( )
1 vote Othemts | Mar 31, 2011 |
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To the memory of my father, Isaac Kaplan (1906-1987); and to Hattie M. Strelitz, the teacher who, on the Lower East Side of New York City in December 1918, awarded him a copy of The Perfect Tribute, an idealistic myth about the writing of the Gettysburg Address. It was given to him for "Proficiency and Excellent Class Spirit" and came into my hands a generation later. It impressed me deeply with a truth that empowers us all: the power of Lincoln's language.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060773340, Hardcover)

For Abraham Lincoln, whether he was composing love letters, speeches, or legal arguments, words mattered. In Lincoln, acclaimed biographer Fred Kaplan explores the life of America’s sixteenth president through his use of language as a vehicle both to express complex ideas and feelings and as an instrument of persuasion and empowerment. Like the other great canonical writers of American literature – a status he is gradually attaining – Lincoln had a literary career that is inseparable from his life story. An admirer and avid reader of Burns, Byron, Shakespeare, and the Old Testament, Lincoln was the most literary of our presidents. His views on love, liberty, and human nature were shaped by his reading and knowledge of literature. Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his audience with equal and enduring effectiveness. Kaplan focuses on the elements that shaped Lincoln’s mental and imaginative world; how his writings molded his identity, relationships, and career; and how they simultaneously generated both the distinctive political figure he became and the public discourse of the nation. This unique account of Lincoln’s life and career highlights the shortcomings of the modern presidency, reminding us, through Lincoln’s legacy and appreciation for language, that the careful and honest use of words is a necessity for successful democracy. Illuminating and engrossing, Lincoln brilliantly chronicles Abraham Lincoln’s genius with language.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:27 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

For Abraham Lincoln, whether he was composing love letters, speeches, or legal arguments, words mattered. In Lincoln, acclaimed biographer Fred Kaplan explores the life of America's sixteenth president through his use of language as a vehicle both to express complex ideas and feelings and as an instrument of persuasion and empowerment. Like the other great canonical writers of American literature{u2014}a status he is gradually attaining{u2014}Lincoln had a literary career that is inseparable from his life story. An admirer and avid reader of Burns, Byron, Shakespeare, and the Old Testament, Lincoln was the most literary of our presidents. His views on love, liberty, and human nature were shaped by his reading and knowledge of literature.… (more)

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