Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

Gettysburg

In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken — he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.

Living in Washington D.C. calls for at least one book about one of the great individuals who have walked its streets.  Since Hillary Clinton’s biography couldn’t be more massive, I went to the next best thing: a book about the Gettysburg address.

Now here’s a bit of a side story: in the first month that I had come to Washington, I went with a group of other interns I live with to the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s a bit of a hike, not really anywhere near a metro stop, and the day we went was incredibly windy, yet the memorial was still crawling with people, swarmed with tourists and a singing Mennonite group and veterans and maybe even a few locals in there somewhere.  Lincoln in all his marble glory is quite the sight.  While we looked a National Parks Service guide wandered up to us, and gently pointed out on the right wall were the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, and there on the right: the Gettysburg Address.

I looked at it and said: “but that’s only part of it right?”

“No,” he said laughing. “That’s the whole speech.  Lincoln’s writers couldn’t believe it when he read it.  How could the speech that was supposed to unite America be that short?  But that was why he was so great, he understood that a small speech would be more impactful.”

The National Parks Service guy had a lot of it right, turns out (not that I should be surprised).  After our visit to the Lincoln Memorial, I was intrigued enough to put Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America on my list for Bookstravaganza, and my good friend Burak picked it for the final cut.

Although only 400 pages in length, I found Gary Wills’ take on the Gettysburg Address to be very thorough, exhaustive even.  He takes on almost every angle, dissecting the words, placing them in the context as legacy of great Grecian oratory and in the presence of a society drawn to death.  Lincoln, both a great orator and a grieving father who keenly understood the emotional crisis America found itself in after the carnage of Gettysburg, did not pick his words based on luck or coincidence.  Wills’ book is extremely informative, and I can’t say much more about it other than the only times it didn’t retain my interest were the times extensive evidence from ancient Athens was drawn on by Wills.  I have to admit, I might be one of the only history students who can’t stand reading about ancient Greece.

As I mentioned my friend Burak, who is Dutch-Turkish, chose the book for me to read and has read from the first chapter (the recording below).  As I continue with the audio recordings I have decided to include more of the before and after of our conversations, and here have included Burak correcting himself halfway through.  It’s part of the charm of being read aloud to, I think!  I assured Bura that Peloponnesian isn’t an easy word for those of us native English speakers either. 

Books Read: 4

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