This academic-minded book isn’t for everyone. Its language is dense, and Civil War buffs may be disappointed to find that Kaplan spends little time examining the speeches of Lincoln’s presidency. But there’s still plenty here to reveal how Lincoln learned to inspire.
Kaplan follows Lincoln’s life through the prism of language, examining the books he read and the words he wrote and spoke aloud. “His was a personality and a career formed in the crucible of language,” Kaplan writes.
The future president’s love letters, speeches, essays, poems and even his dirty jokes all get their due. Kaplan also looks for connections between Lincoln’s reading material and his words, finding influences of Shakespeare and the Bible among other sources.
And what of the Gettysburg Address? In it, Kaplan finds poetry of loss, of renewal, of life and death. And, of course, the speech invokes the past and future of America, which Kaplan calls “a text constantly being rewritten.” So many years later, though, the words from one presidential pen need no revision.
It seems Lincoln’s sword was as mighty as that pen. In his perceptive new book, acclaimed Civil War historian James M. McPherson reveals the struggles and triumphs of an inexperienced president whose youthful military career consisted of fighting off mosquitoes. Three decades later, he managed to run a war and outshine his own generals.
In the end, he beat back foes from Richmond to Capitol Hill, persisting “through a terrible ordeal of defeats and disappointments to final triumph – and tragedy – at the end,” McPherson writes in Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief.