By In Stuff

Feb 12 birthday: Abraham Lincoln (redux)

I certainly don’t want to turn this blog into a reprint station … but in tracking down the post I did on Rulon Gardner and the stew, I ran across this post I forgot all about, one I did on the writing of Abraham Lincoln. I figured since today’s his birthday, hey, why not rerun it?

Also, thank you to the many people who have written asking about my new gig with NBC Sports. I will have plenty more details (and some new writing) in the next couple of days.

In the meantime, here is this little Lincoln thing I wrote back in 2007.


This figures to be the only post we’ll ever write about Abraham Lincoln. I mean, obviously this is just a goofy blog written by a goofy sportswriter. On most days the most significant questions to be asked here will be something like: “Do you remember the old electronic game Merlin?*”

*Merlin was a sort of our 1970s version of a mini-computer game. It was shaped kind of like a phone, and it had nine little touchstone circles in the front that, when pressed with enough force, lit up. You could play nine different games on Merlin, which to us made it some sort of more perfect technological marvel, though, looking back on it, the nine games all pretty much resembled Tic Tac Toe.

It also had a very catchy little commercial theme song:

Where’s Merlin Now?
He’s not there.
He’s out with Billy Playing Magic Square!**”

**Magic Square, in the mystic chords of my memory, was a lot like Tic Tac Toe.

Anyway, this post is not about Lincoln the man or the politician or the historical figure. This is about writing. Lincoln was an amazing writer, of course. If you are at all interested in this, I cannot recommend more highly Douglas L. Wilson’s terrific book Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words. It’s pretty fascinating stuff, even to someone who has it on a bookshelf next to: Sam, Sipe & Company.

In Lincoln’s Sword there is a chapter written about how Lincoln came to write the First Inaugural (and many of his other famous speeches). And here, perhaps better than anyplace I’ve ever seen, you can see how words become art.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward (Editor’s note: David Strathairn in the movie) was a longtime politician and many (including Seward himself) thought that he, not Lincoln, would and should become president. The relationship of Seward and Lincoln is probably worth a book (and I’m sure that book has been written at least 800 times — haven’t read those), but the point here is that Seward suggested a closing paragraph for the First Inaugural. You know the situation — the South was seceding from the Union, the new President was trying to keep the country together, etc. Here’s Seward’s paragraph:

“I close. We are not, we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I’m sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all our hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”

That’s actually pretty good, certainly a better, more inspiring, more compelling paragraph than we have heard from presidents in recent years. But Lincoln, seizing upon a few of those words and ideas, turned it into something for the ages:

“I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Brilliant, no?

Turned: “We must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren” into “We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.” Simpler and yet more elegant. Punchier and yet more piercing.

Turned: “The mystic chords” into “The mystic chords of memory.”

Turned: “When breathed up by the guardian angel of the nation” into “when touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Perfection.

And so on. A few changes, a few simplifications, a couple of clarifications, and Lincoln turned another’s suggestions and thoughts into something haunting and timeless and deeply American.

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7 Responses to Feb 12 birthday: Abraham Lincoln (redux)

  1. Unknown says:

    Man, that’s editing. And I mean that in the best sense of the word.

  2. Anthony says:

    That is quite amazing.

  3. Vidor says:

    It’s true, Lincoln does not get enough credit as a prose stylist. And those paragraphs, when printed together, are a perfect example of ordinary competence (Seward) versus genius (Lincoln). The 2nd Inaugural Address is an absolute masterpiece. I don’t know how much of that Lincoln wrote or if he collaborated again with Seward or John Hay or something.

  4. I have been force-fed Lincoln for six months (it really has been for my own good), and this is the dessert.

    Thanks for adding your repost to my repast.

  5. Keatang says:

    He not only turned Seward’s suggestions into something more beautiful, but changed the meaning profoundly.

    Seward wrote: “when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation”, which Lincoln changed to “by the better angels of our nature”. In other words, this crisis will not be resolved by an outside force, no matter how powerful or benevolent, but only by the good in all of us.

  6. Keatang says:

    He not only turned Seward’s suggestions into something more beautiful, but changed the meaning profoundly.

    Seward wrote: “when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation”, which Lincoln changed to “by the better angels of our nature”. In other words, this crisis will not be resolved by an outside force, no matter how powerful or benevolent, but only by the good in all of us.

  7. This figures to be the only post we’ll ever write about Abraham Lincoln. I mean, obviously this is just a goofy blog written by a goofy sportswriter.

    Presswire

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