Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings by Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the sixteenth president of the United States, shepherding the nation through the dark days of the American Civil War.  Though mostly self-educated, he had a gift for the English language, making memorable speeches and writing interest letters.  Because of his historical importance and good prose, Lincoln’s writings and speeches are a common field of study.

Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings

The introduction by Gore Vidal speaks about the divide between the Lincoln of the hagiography and the Lincoln of the more complete biographies, the former omitting his “loon-like” moments and occasional crudity, as well as Lincoln’s less salutary opinions.  Mr. Vidal feels that including these warts does not diminish Abraham Lincoln’s greatness.

There’s a lot of material in this volume, starting with Lincoln’s first known political address in 1832 about improvements to navigation on the Sangamo River and ending with a speech on his hopes for the Reconstruction period in 1865, short days before his assassination.

As one might expect, a lot of these writings are about slavery, the great issue of American politics from the 1840s to the 1860s.  (Mr. Lincoln was not a fan.)  But there are also responses to his ne’er-do-well stepbrother’s requests for money, a description of his disastrous courtship of a woman who turned out not to be interested, musings on scientific discoveries, and even a stab or two at poetry.

There’s a certain amount of redundancy, in particular on the subject of slavery and whether it should be allowed to spread to the Territories.  (Lincoln at one point discusses this in a letter to his wife Mary; now that newspapers were printing his speeches widely, audiences already knew his best material.)  This volume has all of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches for his debates with Stephen Douglas (but not Mr. Douglas’, so here we have only Mr. Lincoln’s word for what Mr. Douglas said) and there’s a large amount of repeated wording and ideas.

What comes through in this material (though I must point out that these writings are “selected” so that choice itself shapes the story) is Lincoln’s belief in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence and its talk of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as not an accomplished thing, but a promise that had to be followed up, not just for the kind of people who had signed that declaration, but for all people.  Mr. Lincoln may not have been up to declaring that black people should be full citizens of the United States, but he was sure that treating them as property was wrong.

Also obvious is how President Lincoln moved over his term in office from hesitation to use the powers of his station to confidence in doing what he felt needed to be done within the scope of the Constitution.  (Perhaps overreaching with his War Powers.)  He didn’t enter office with the intention of freeing the slaves, but of preserving the Union.  In the end, however, Lincoln did not regret freeing slaves one little bit.

Also included at the end is an explanation of how the versions of the speeches and letters were chosen when there’s more than one extant, a chronology of Lincoln’s life, end notes, and an index.

The writing is clear and well done with a bit of antiquated vocabulary; any bright high school student should have little difficulty reading this.  On the other hand, the redundancy of some of the material makes it a bit of a chore to plow straight through; the casual reader may want to take it slow and in small portions.

Highly recommended to Americans interested in the Civil War period or presidents.  Students will want to pair this volume with a good biography of President Lincoln for an outside perspective.

 

 

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...