Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
By Fred Kaplan
416 pages; Harper
Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (Harper) will make Americans long for that era when the man we elected to hold our nation's highest office cared urgently about the beauties, the rhythms, the proper use—and misuse—of the English language. This revealing view of our 16th president focuses on his literary skills, on his deep appreciation for the classics, and on his lifelong search for the most precise and eloquent way to communicate his convictions and his ideas. Kaplan provides a thorough account of what Lincoln read: Shakespeare, Emerson, the poems of Byron and Burns, works of history and philosophy. Even more compelling is Kaplan's take on the suppleness with which Honest Abe altered his tone and choice of words to suit whatever he was writing—speeches, letters, even poems. An early draft of an essay on tariffs displays the easy wit with which Lincoln faced down the humorless Stephen Douglas in the debates, and the ways Lincoln used material from his own life to make a political point. In this election season, Fred Kaplan's book might encourage us all to bear in mind the relationship between clear speech and clear thought, and perhaps to vote on—among other critical issues—how thoughtfully a candidate puts one word after another.