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· Head, Hands, and Heart: Lincoln the Writer ·

One-hundred-and-thirty-eight years ago Abraham Lincoln died. Shot April 14, dead April 15, Lincoln is in one way still with us. For Good Friday, of course, is the day he was assassinated, and tonight, as Christians world-wide anticipate the coming of Easter, we can do him the justice of examining, if not his 1865 assassination directly, then indirectly his uncanny way of anticipating it. One essay, "Lincoln the Writer," in Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays Explicative and Hortatory, offers one way of doing so, for it raises the related question of Lincoln's style.

In his own day, Lincoln's prose [Barzun writes] was found flat, dull, lacking in taste. It differed radically in form and tone from the accepted models — Webster's or Channing's for speeches, Bryant's or Greeley's for journalism. Once or twice, Lincoln did imitate their genteel circumlocutions or resonant abstractions. But these were exercises he never repeated. His style, well in hand by his thirtieth year and richly developed by his fiftieth, has the eloquence which comes of the contrast between transparency of medium and density of thought. Consider this episode from a lyceum lecture written when Lincoln was twenty-nine:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic of anything of its length that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man by the name of McIntosh was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

 · Lincoln's Life Mask and Hands, Bronze Cast, 1886, Glessner House Museum, Chicago, Illinois ·

Notice the contrasting rhythms of the two sentences: "A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short." The sentences are very short, too, but let anyone try imitatiing their continuous flow or subdued emotion on the characteristic Lincolnian theme of the swift passage from the business of life to death. Jacques Barzun, Jacques Barzun on Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays Explicative and Hortatory, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1971, 66-67.

I am not trying to make Lincoln Christ-like here, but only noting, in marking the memory of his stylistic achievement, the coincidence of his assassination. I first thought of this while singing the old refrain last night — "Let my people go" — to "Go Down, Moses." Indeed, I think that as Lincoln was penning McIntosh's case, he was grasping therein the cases of others he would later emancipate. It was a matter not only of style but of substance: a point grasped, in 1863 — clearly, forcefully, and eloquently — even in the midst of Civil War. It was, historically, an application of head, hands, and heart to his best work.


For an analysis of the great wisdom of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, see Peter Schramm's review of Allen Guelzo's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.

Posted by Styles on May 13, 2004 12:01 PM

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