Goodreads: Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America
Gary Wills examines Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in light of its historical and cultural framework, arguing that Lincoln employed methods common to Greek rhetoric to create a speech that would reach back to the Declaration of Independence and redefine they way Americans view themselves.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has attained mythic status, so it seems incredible that anyone could say anything new about it, much less enable us to see it anew. Wills, however, through careful research, illuminates the culture of Lincoln’s time, showing how Transcendentalism and the Greek Revival influenced the president’s thinking and enabled him to create a speech that would transcend its own historical moment and rewrite the meaning of America.
Wills goes into great detail explaining how the Address reflects patterns of Greek rhetoric and Transcendentalist thought, how it ties into the natural cemetery movement, and how it fits into the expected oratory of the day. Even though I have heard the Address countless numbers of times, I felt I was reading it with fresh eyes, seeing once again just how beautiful, how delicately balanced, how powerful it really is. Wills guides readers through sentence by sentence, looking closely at a word choice or a turn or phrase.
At times the detail and the writing become technical enough that I am surprised the book gained such a large popular audience. I admit at times I found myself skimming a bit out of boredom.
Other times I found myself lost by Wills’s tendency to insert quotations between paragraphs with no introduction. He might be speaking of Douglas and Lincoln, and the reader must discern whether the block quote following was written by one or the other. I am surprised no editor asked Wills to change this.
Wills’s book is a testimony to the enduring power of Lincoln’s words and the way in which they continue to give America an ideal of freedom toward which to strive. Even over a decade after its publication, it remains timely.