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· Simeon Strunsky "Edits" Lincoln ·

Among American speeches none is more famous than the Gettysburg Address. At 271 words, it remains the standard of economical presidential speech-making. Less often recited now than in years past, it is a model, of course, for school study and inquiry. But as Simeon Strunsky has remarked, editing presents problems — mostly by way of killing the spirit.

To be a model, a classic, means to be "edited," Strunsky claims, "with twenty pages of introduction and" — you'll like this part — "I don't know how many foot-notes." As I've already counted two footnotes here, the chance to lighten that task is especially appealing. So with Willard Espy's help, from An Almanac of Words at Play, I offer you Strunsky's helpful "foot-noting" of Lincoln. "He speculates," Espy writes, "that somewhere in the high schools or the colleges this is what the young soul finds in the Gettysburg Address":

Four score and seven years1 ago our fathers2 brought forth on this continent3 a new nation,4 conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition5 that all men are created equal.6 Now we are engaged in a great civil war,7 testing whether that nation,8 or any nation so conceived and so dedicated,9 can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield10 of that war.

1i. e., eighty-seven years ago. The Gettysburg Address was delivered Nov. 19, 1863. Lincoln is here referring to the Declaration of Independence.

2Figuratively speaking. To take "fathers" in a literal sense would, of course, involve a physiological absurdity.

3The western continent, embracing North and South America.

4"A new nation." This is tautological, since a nation just brought forth would necessarily be new.

5"Proposition," in the sense in which Euclid employs the term and not as one might say now, "a cloak and suit proposition."

6See the Declaration of Independence in Albert Bushnell Hart's "American History Told by Contemporaries" (4 vols., Boston, 1898-1901).

7The war between the States, 1861-65.

8i. e., the United States.

9See Elliot's Debates in the several State Conventions on the adoption of the Federal Constitution, etc. (5 vols., Washington, 1840-45).

10Gettysburg; a borough and the county seat of Adams Co., Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border, 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg. Pop. in 1910, 4,030. Simeon Strunsky, as quoted in Willard Espy, An Almanac of Words at Play, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1975, 41.

Perhaps you may recall that Strunsky's most famous remark is: "Famous remarks are very seldom quoted correctly." Maybe that's why in one of his essays, "Nocturne," one soul reflects — stylistically and substantively — on the old difference between literature and life, between "newspapers" and "Night Court." Could Strunsky really be saying, "Bring Back Recitation"?1

1It's an equally open question, of course, whether Jacques Derrida — the oh-so-quotable Deconstructor — should be called in to testify.


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