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"It is not too much to say of him [Lincoln] that he is among the greatest masters of prose ever produced by the English race."-The (London) Spectator.
IT is said that Nathaniel Hawthorne was once asked the secret of his style. That consummate writer replied-no doubt with one of his inscrutable smiles-"It is the result of a great deal of practice. It comes from the desire to tell the simple truth as honestly and vividly as I can." The flawless perfection of Lincoln's style in his noblest utterances eludes a final analysis as completely as the exquisite pages of our great romancer, yet in striving to understand some of the causes of that perfection we may use the hint which Hawthorne has given
Lincoln had " a great deal of practice” in the art of speech long before his debates against Douglas made him known to the nation : endless talks in country stores, endless jests in frontier taverns, twenty years of pleading in the circuit courts, twenty-five years of constant political discussion. His law partner has noted his incessant interest in the precise meaning of words. His reputation for clear statement to
a jury was the result of his passion for putting ideas into language "plain enough for any boy to comprehend." Lincoln's mind worked slowly, and he was long in finding the words that exactly expressed his thoughts, but when he had once hit upon the word or phrase he never forgot it. "He read less and thought more than any man in the country," says Herndon with a sort of pride, and it should be remembered that throughout his gradual development as a master of his mother tongue he was preoccupied, not with words for their own sake, but solely with words as the garb of ideas.
Furthermore, Lincoln's mental characteristics illustrate with singular force the remark of Hawthorne that style is the result of a desire to tell the simple truth as honestly and vividly as one can. He was "Honest Abe;" not indeed so innocent and frank and unsophisticated as many people believed; not a man who told all he knew, by any means; but yet a man essentially fair-minded. He looked into the nature of things. He read human nature dispassionately. A man of intense feeling, he was nevertheless, in mature life at least, without sentimentality. He was not fooled by phrases. As a debater, he made no attempt to mislead his audience; as President, when he found frank conversation impossible, he told a humorous story of more or less remote bearing upon the subject in hand. He kept inviolate his mental integrity. And without integrity of mind the
would-be master of speech becomes a mere juggler with words. In the letter to Thurlow Weed concerning the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln described that memorable utterance as a truth which I thought needed to be told." No description could be more noble.
That Lincoln's gift of humor added much to the vividness and homely naturalness of his style will not be questioned. But the connection between fair-mindedness and humor is not always remembered. The man of true humor -not, of course, the mere joker or wit-sees all sides of a proposition. He recognizes instinctively its defects of proportion, its incongruities. It is the great humorists who have drawn the truest pictures of human life, because their humor was a constant corrective against onesidedness. Lincoln's mind had the impartiality, the freedom from prejudice, the flexibility of sympathy, which belongs to the humorist alone.
It has sometimes been argued that his fondness for story-telling showed a deficient command of language; that knowing his inability to express his ideas directly, he conveyed them indirectly by an anecdote. It would probably be nearer the truth to say that the stories were a proof of his understanding of the limitations of language. He divined the boundaries of expression through formal speech, and knew when a picture, a parable, would best serve his turn.
As great responsibilities came to rest upon him, as the harassing problems of our national life pressed closer and closer, the lonely President grew more clear-eyed and certain of his course. The politician was lost in the statesman. His whole life, indeed, was a process of enfranchisement from selfish and narrow views. He stood at last on a serener height than other men of his epoch, breathing an ampler air, perceiving more truly the eternal realities. And his style changed as the man changed. What he saw and felt at his solitary final post he has in part made known, through a slowly perfected instrument of expression. So transparent is the language of the Gettysburg Address and of the Second Inaugural that one may read through them, as through a window, Lincoln's wise and gentle and unselfish heart. Other praise is needless.
The selections included in this volume are designed to illustrate the steady development of Lincoln's literary power. They begin with a few specimens of his earlier style, which was direct, forceful, and manly, but not markedly better than that of many of his contemporaries. The famous "Lost Speech" of May 29, 1856, has been reprinted in the Appendix. As it does not present Lincoln's exact language throughout, it could scarcely be placed with the other selections, but its personal and historical interest is so great that lovers of Lincoln will be glad to have it preserved in convenient form.
With the Springfield speech of June 16, 1858, Lincoln entered upon a new phase of his career. Its careful enunciation of a great political principle made it the turning-point of a memorable campaign. The significance of its opening paragraph, in particular, has been discussed in the prefatory note to the speech itself, and need not be repeated here. The space-limit of the volumes in this series forbids the presentation of any of the entire speeches of the joint debates with Douglas, and so closely inter-related, so full of allusion and cross reference are all of those speeches that detached paragraphs would give little conception of the qualities displayed by either of the debaters. The Cooper Union speech of February 25, 1860, however, goes over much of the ground of the Douglas debates.
The remaining speeches in the volume belong to Lincoln's career as President. They range from the most informal addresses to the Inaugurals. The Emancipation Proclamation is also included. The letters exhibit still another side of Lincoln's strange and fascinating individuality. In compression and clear-cut force, in their humor and homely pathos, in their shrewd knowledge of character, these letters are among the most extraordinary ever written. While they afford new glimpses into Lincoln's nature, it is true of them, as it is of his other writings, that they express without explaining the secret of his personality. One closes a vol