lincoln at gettysburg

published

Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills Simon & Schuster (June 1992) ISBN: 0671769561

I quite enjoyed this book. I haven’t read a lot of non-fiction since I left college, but this was a treat to read. It was a rigid examination of the cultural backdrop of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and a surprisingly intimate account of Abraham Lincoln.

I was a little dismayed when the book almost immediately departed from the title subject and delved into the Greek Revival movement of the 19th century, and then progressed on to America’s fascination with cemetaries, and then meandered back to the title by way of the Transcendentalist movement. Sticking with it, though, the book proved to be a wealth of historical analysis, and a great cultural backdrop to the importance of the Gettysburg Address.

Quotes from the book: Simplicity is that element of beauty in a scene that leads gradually from one object to another, in easy harmony, avoiding abrupt contrasts and unexpected features. Grandeur, in this application, is closely allied to solemnity. Solemnity is an attribute of the sublime. The sublime in scenery may be defined as continuity of extent, the repitition of objects in themselves simple and commonplace. We do not apply this epithet to the scanty tricklings of the brook, but to the collected waters of the ocean. To produce an expression of grandeur, we must avoid intricacy and great variety of parts; more particularly we must refrain from introducing any intermixture of meretricious display or ornament. (except from Burke’s treatise on the sublime which inspired William Saunders, designer of the cemetary at Gettysburg)

It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question, then, is: can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining and edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men, sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Ceaser, or a Napolean? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freedom. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the poeple to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. (Lincoln’s 1838 speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, IL)


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