Abe Lincoln had the write stuff

From the start, he needed to overcome internal and external opposition by willful acts of self-definition, the ambitious farm boy autodidact becoming a splitter of words and ideas rather than fence rails.

Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

I’m having trouble writing this review because I have so much to say. I tried channeling the 16th President by asking myself WWAW (What Would Abe Write)? That didn’t help much, so I’ll just boil it down to one sentence: This book (published by HarperCollins in 2008) is fantastic.

OK, maybe a few more sentences. As the title declares, Kaplan examines Lincoln’s life through the prism of the writings he left behind. Those writings include not only published essays and speeches but also letters and fragments of letters he wrote to friends. Kaplan begins in Lincoln’s childhood, looking at the books that we know young Abe had access to at home, especially once his stepmother joined the household. Some of them are familiar and unsurprising — Shakespeare, the Bible — and others raised my eyebrows. Lord Byron was a favorite source of inspiration for Lincoln, as was … Scottish poet Robert Burns?! Apparently Lincoln often quoted entire poems or long passages of Burns’ poems from memory, even the saucy bits.

cover image of book

It was fascinating to learn that Lincoln wrote on all sorts of topics, not just political events and issues of the day. Following a trip in 1844 to his childhood home in Indiana, he wrote what appears to have been intended as a four-canto poem in the tradition of Thomas Gray, whose “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was a favorite of Lincoln. Kaplan also cites influences from Wordsworth, Burns and Chaucer in the poem, only three cantos of which have survived. The excerpts that Kaplan quotes are melancholic and humorous in turn, reflecting on memories that gave him both pain and pleasure.

Lincoln also used writing as a way to explore his thinking on subjects of the day. He wrote and re-wrote, constantly refining his thoughts. He used writing as a way to help him clarify his own beliefs and political opinions. And he seldom spoke extemporaneously — at a minimum he worked from a set of notes for each speech he gave, in order to ensure that he could lay out his thoughts and positions in a coherent way. Kaplan describes Lincoln’s writing in a speech given to a temperance society as “a prose so lucid to read it is like looking a hundred feet through clear water.”

Kaplan expends most of his energy and analysis to the years before Lincoln became president; in an eight-chapter book the presidency is entirely confined to the final chapter. That’s one reason I can’t view this book as the end-all and be-all of exploring Lincoln’s life or his genius for language. The other reason is that while partial quotations of Lincoln’s writing to illustrate specific points are plentiful, Kaplan does not include any speech or essay in its entirety to allow us to fully absorb Lincoln’s genius. Perhaps there are limitations on the amount of text that can legally be quoted? At any rate, it was a loss I felt keenly.

I probably don’t need to say that I highly recommend this book. While there’s a fair amount of detail about Lincoln’s life beyond his writing, some readers will find value in also reading a more comprehensive biography, especially one that focuses on his presidency. As for me, I now feel a great deal of affinity for the man who declared:

Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it — great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. … Its utility may be conceived by the reflection that to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.

Abraham Lincoln

Reality is not a linear construct

In Tana French’s The Witch Elm, the reader is left to wonder:
If you don’t remember something, did it really happen?

Last year, Tana French stepped away from her acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series with a stand-alone literary mystery (published by Viking) that is less a conventional whodunit than an extended riff on the vagaries of memory and the mutability of character and personality. Toby is a 20-something social media manager for a Dublin art gallery when he suffers a traumatic brain injury during a robbery. Even after his physical injuries have healed, he struggles with anxiety and his lack of memory of the attack. In an attempt to re-focus his attention outward, he and his girlfriend Melissa move into Ivy House as companions to his favorite uncle, Hugo, who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. When a dead man is discovered on the property, the family has to cope with police intrusion and the veil of suspicion that falls on all of them.

Toby comes across as a classic unreliable narrator — but is he really? Is he hiding things from the reader, or are things hidden from both the reader and himself by his own brain? If you don’t remember something, did it really happen? And who do you believe when you’re presented with alternate versions of events that you were involved in but cannot remember for yourself? It’s a fascinating puzzle, and French explores all the nuances as the answer to the murder mystery is slowly uncovered.

When I originally reviewed this book, I was ambivalent about the ending, mainly in terms of certain characters not behaving in ways that were consistent with how they had presented throughout the novel. Shortly afterward, I found a terrific interview with Tana French on the always thought-provoking site Electric Lit. The article’s title, Tana French’s The Witch Elm Is an Exploration of White Male Privilege, is perhaps inevitable in the #MeToo era, but French’s central thesis is more nuanced than that headline suggests. As she says about conceiving the novel’s plot, “Mainly, I was thinking about the connection between luck and empathy. If we’ve been too lucky in one area of life, that can stunt our ability to empathize with people who haven’t been that lucky.” I’ve been guilty of this myself, assuming that because I found certain college classes easy that anyone who didn’t wasn’t trying hard enough. Not a good look, that!

I’ve enjoyed all of French’s books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but this book’s standalone status isn’t a letdown in any way. As regular readers of French know, the DMS series does not follow the same cast of characters throughout. Each book places a different detective at the center of the story, with their colleagues whom we’ve come to know in previous books appearing in passing or not at all. For me, that’s one of the aspects that keeps the series so fresh and lively, but it also means that The Witch Elm doesn’t seem like a big departure. It’s still a murder mystery in Dublin, only told from a point of view outside the police station.

So no, The Witch Elm isn’t technically part of that series, but it shares the genetic code that makes French’s previous work so compelling: A firm grasp on the intricacies of plotting a murder mystery, believable characters (not to be confused with likable, necessarily), and a gift for keen observation and description that bring the settings alive. More real than reality, in some ways. Whatever that may be.