Monday, January 12, 2009

The literature of Abraham Lincoln. Barack Obama, and other presidents

as digested by Jonathan Raban:

He's a good -- even exceptionally good -- writer, but his best sentences still pale beside those of the president he echoes and alludes to in almost every speech. It's not, I think, an exaggeration to say that Obama is the most able writer to win the presidency since Lincoln. But so far Lincoln's grasp of homely metaphor, the scathing clarity of his logic, his capacity to make the gravest subject yield material for comedy, leave Obama in the dust. It's not just the great prose-poems of the Gettysburg Address and the two inaugurals; it's the wonderfully lucid -- and funny -- prose of Lincoln on the stump that stops the reader in his tracks, as no president has done before or since. Here he is, in New Haven, Conn., on March 6, 1860, speaking on the bitterly contentious subject of the introduction of slavery to Western states yet to be admitted to the Union, like Kansas and Nebraska (transcript from the New Haven Daily Palladium):

If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor's children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]

Obama, who's shown flashes of humor but little real wit, could usefully learn from Lincoln's genius for rousing so much laughter on an issue as menacingly serious as slavery. In a fragment of a speech written in 1858, describing those who stubbornly opposed the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, he came up with this marvelous sentence: "Though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by the smell."

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