Parsing the Gettysburg Address


As far as I know, Garry Wills is the only author to win a Pulitzer Prize for writing about the Gettysburg Adddress.

It’s fitting, then, that we invoke an ESSAY BY WILLS in our observance of today’s 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s historic speech:

Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg worked several revolutions, beginning with one in literary style. [Edward] Everett’s talk was given at the last point in history when such a performance could be appreciated without reservation. It was made obsolete within a half hour of the time when it was spoken. Lincoln’s remarks anticipated the shift to vernacular rhythms which Mark Twain would complete twenty years later. [Ernest] Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of Huckleberry Finn. It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address …

The spare quality of Lincoln’s prose did not come naturally but was worked at. Lincoln not only read aloud, to think his way into sounds, but also wrote as a way of ordering his thought … He loved the study of grammar, which some think the most arid of subjects. Some claimed to remember his gift for spelling, a view that our manuscripts disprove. Spelling as he had to learn it (separate from etymology) is more arbitrary than logical. It was the logical side of language—the principles of order as these reflect patterns of thought or the external world—that appealed to him.

He was also, [Lincoln’s law partner William] Herndon tells us, laboriously precise in his choice of words. He would have agreed with Mark Twain that the difference between the right word and the nearly right one is that between lightning and a lightning bug. He said, debating Douglas, that his foe confused a similarity of words with a similarity of things—as one might equate a horse chestnut with a chestnut horse.

As a speaker, Lincoln grasped Twain’s later insight: “Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.” The trick, of course, was not simply to be brief but to say a great deal in the fewest words. Lincoln justly boasted of his Second Inaugural’s seven hundred words, “Lots of wisdom in that document, I suspect.” The same is even truer of the Gettysburg Address, which uses fewer than half that number of words.



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