Abraham Lincoln as a vampire slayer? Why not? Surely a mythic figure on the historic landscape, he embodies the paradoxes of a period at once rich and raw, a time of agonistic contradiction and extraordinary possibility, a moment when the constitution of the nation in every meaning of that term showed its roughest edges as it teetered on the brink of extinction. I am not surprised at finding myself more willing to suspend disbelief that Lincoln slayed vampires than that his best friend (and the best man at his wedding) was African American or that he was devoted above all to the abolition of slavery. He is—and seems to have styled himself as—a figure suited more to myth than to history, and that is why I take such pleasure in his speeches, especially the Gettysburg Address.
Pleasure is never unalloyed. The Gettysburg Address is as dangerous as it is powerful—dangerous because it is powerful. Lincoln was a wordsmith par excellence; his favorite book was Kirkham’s Grammar, a book used commonly in classrooms at a time when the political power of rhetoric was widely acknowledged. Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg demonstrates the president’s mastery of rhetoric, but I wonder if even Lincoln could have imagined the impact of the 271 words (more or less) intoned at the Pennsylvania cemetery on November 19, 1863, when the president was not even the featured speaker. And I wonder if words could matter that much at present. I hope so, which is why I take such pleasure in this rhetorical performance.
At Gettysburg, as I have discussed elsewhere, Lincoln uttered the modern nation into existence. His archaic opening—the biblical language of “four score and seven years ago”—shows his awareness that he is writing a creation myth and grounding it in the highest authority available to a nineteenth-century American. My pleasure comes from my astonishment and awe at what these words seem to have done. Their alchemy appears to have turned “these united states” into “the United States” even before the Union victory produced a nation out of a confederation. Lincoln’s flaws are well known; his mistakes and limitations are very much the stuff of history. But the audacity of a rhetorician—a poet and politician—who knew and profoundly believed in his crafts displays undeniably the power of words to change worlds. That power is [End Page 15] hopeful, and that hope combined with the rhetorical force of the speech/poem yields an awful pleasure: the pleasure and politics of words forged out of a dauntless (and daunting) imagination.
I take pleasure in this text as a poem—and in calling it a poem—every time I teach or write about it.1 I delight in seeing, and showing, how much prosody, poetics, and grammar matter, for example, in Lincoln’s use of the transitive and intransitive forms of the verb “to dedicate” when he insists that although “we” are “here” to “dedicate” the battlefield—to convert it into a cemetery and national symbol—“we” cannot “dedicate” (or “consecrate” or “hallow”) it; that honor belongs to “the brave men, living or dead, who struggled” in the bloodiest battle of the war. “We” can, however, “be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Lincoln’s audience, metonymically “the people” of the nation to which he so hopefully gives rhetorical shape, can complete this work by dedicating themselves to an idea—“the proposition that all men are created equal”—to which the nation is “dedicated.” They can, that is, consent to be “the people” who embody the nation that founds itself not on territory or tribal right but on a principle declared “four score and seven years ago,” eleven years prior to the ratification of the contested Constitution. The exclusions and exceptionalism of this vision are evident; its grandiosity is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
I came to understand that apparent paradox, as well as the curious pleasure of paradox itself, from another text that greatly enhanced, if not altogether enabled, my pleasure in Lincoln’s words: Allen Grossman’s magisterial...