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Lincoln’s Shakespeare

Professor Douglas Wilson is the author of Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, a biographical account of Lincoln’s young adulthood (1831-1842), his early career in politics and “his emergence as a man to be reckoned with.” It is to a substantial extent based on the testimony of “Herndon’s informants,” the first-hand accounts collected by Lincoln’s law partner in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s death. Together with Rodney Davis, Wilson rescued these accounts from oblivion. In Honor’s Voice, Wilson also rescued them from disrepute, showing how they could be used to provide invaluable insight into Lincoln’s maturation.

Honor’s Voice bowled me over when it came out. I had no idea how close it was possible to get to Lincoln, even in connection with what I had thought were legendary episodes of his life. Wilson devotes the first chapter of that book, for example, to an investigation of Lincoln’s wrestling match with Jack Armstrong at the time that Lincoln moved to New Salem in 1831. The match is famous in the annals of Lincoln lore.

Although Herndon collected several conflicting eyewitness accounts of the match, the accounts generally agree that Armstrong narrowly escaped losing to Lincoln by some sort of sharp practice. The match ended in rancor, but Lincoln and Armstrong immediately became fast friends. Wilson quotes one of Herndon’s informants on Lincoln’s years as an utterly impoverished young man in New Salem: “Lincoln had nothing[,] only plenty of friends.” The wrestling match is a case study with more than one lesson.

Professor Wilson returned in 2006 with Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words. (He also returned with a new edition of the Herndon-Weik biography — Herndon’s Lincoln — building on his earlier research.) When it was published I interviewed Professor Wilson about Lincoln’s Sword for this post, from which I am borrowing here.

Having been commissioned by the Library of Congress to transcribe and annotate Lincoln’s papers (see here and here), Professor Wilson spent three years supervising a team working on the project. Lincoln’s Sword built on that work to study Lincoln as a writer during his presidency.

I learned in the course of my conversation with him that Professor Wilson is not a historian. In fact, his background is in English literature. He said that he became interested in Lincoln as a writer because so much of the testimony collected by Herndon regarding Lincoln’s early life shows Lincoln’s passion for writing, as early as age seven. Professor Wilson referred at one point to Edmund Wilson’s chapter on Lincoln as a writer in Patriotic Gore. In Lincoln’s Sword Professor Wilson came at Lincoln from a similarly literary angle, placing Lincoln in the context of Emerson and Whitman.

Professor Wilson now takes a look at Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare in the American Scholar essay “His hour upon the stage.” Closely examining one strand of Lincoln’s passion for literature, Professor Wilson brings into view a fascinating aspect of the man. If you love Lincoln and literature, this essay is a category killer. It pulls up short of exploring the Shakespearean passages that meant so much to Lincoln, or to speculate why they touched him so deeply, but that’s not all bad. It will send you back to the plays on a mission.

Via Ken Thomas/No Left Turns.

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