Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

Lincoln: Biography of a Writer
By Fred Kaplan

Though many people may not think of Abraham Lincoln as an author, an author he was. Abraham Lincoln made his living with words which he himself wrote. Lincoln is in fact one of the most quoted American writers. So did you ever wonder how did Lincoln, with only about six months of what we would consider “formal education,” become one of America’s greatest wordsmiths? If you have, then you are not alone.

In this day of book tours and book signings many authors are often asked by their adoring fans for advice on writing, on getting an agent or how to get published. In some instances writers are asked about how they write, or where, or when. In many cases, these are the public’s not so subtly veiled attempts at asking the one question that they really want to ask . . . “How does one become a writer?”

Authors, when asked for advice by want-to-be writers, generally give two standard pieces of guidance. The first, a similar answer to the question “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” is to put your butt in a chair, every day, and write, in essence: “Practice, practice, practice.” The second bit of sage wisdom passed along by authors is “Writers read. Read. Read everything.”

It has been two hundred years since the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and one-hundred forty-four since his death. It is obviously not possible to ask Lincoln how he became a writer, but in his book “Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer,” Fred Kaplan attempts to answer the question by extrapolating how Lincoln may have been influenced by what he read.

I have to admit, before I began reading Mr. Kaplan’s book, I was convinced this was going to be a fairly dull and dry read, but once I opened the book and began to read, as with almost every other book about Lincoln, I was thoroughly engaged.

Starting in Lincoln’s youth and the school books Lincoln had, Kaplan traces Lincoln’s growth as a reader superimposed over Lincoln’s writings throughout his life. Lincoln read the Bible, both old and new testaments, and was very fond of Byron, Burns and Shakespeare. Lincoln could quote large segments of texts from each by memory. Though some evidence Mr. Kaplan uses is circumstantial and his conclusions are sometimes speculative.

There are three things that most bothered me about Mr. Kaplan’s tome. The first is his over use of the word “autodidact.” He uses the word so repetitively that the word draws attention to itself and takes away from Mr. Kaplan’s narrative. I would have thought an editor may have caught that and suggested other phrases such as “self-taught” or “self-educated.”

The second is almost the complete absence of Lincoln’s writings as President. Some of his most well known speeches, and writings, such as the Gettysburg Address, his first and second inaugural addresses and the Emancipation Proclamation are barely mentioned if at all, while other writings of Lincoln’s earlier career are examined under Kaplan’s magnifying glass.

And the third is the absence of a bibliography. Mr. Kaplan has written a book detailing how Abraham Lincoln’s growth as a writer by exploring the books he read. Mr. Kaplan’s tome, then would have been enhanced by including a bibliography of, at the very least, what Lincoln is known to have read, and also other books he may have had access to (the circumstantial evidence & speculative conclusions earlier alluded to), and what sources Mr. Kaplan himself used.

Having said that however, “Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer,” is well written and researched. Mr. Kaplan writes in an easily read style, and his book covers ground seldom or briefly covered in other Lincoln biographies, and therefore adds to our knowledge of our sixteenth president.

ISBN 978-0-06-077334-2, Harper, © 2008, Hardcover, 416 pages, endnotes, & index. $27.95

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