Lincoln’s Reliance on Literature

Abraham Lincoln was very well read and drew on literature to help him handle the challenges of the Civil War.  One of the many things I love about Steven Spielberg’s remarkable new film about Lincoln is the way screenwriter Tony Kushner (author of the Pulitzer-winning Angels in America) seeds Lincoln’s speech with literary quotations.

I enjoyed hearing Lincoln cite one of my favor passages from Henry IV, Part II: “Ah Shallow, we have heard the chimes at midnight.” The remark is shared with another Republican and captures their sense that they have witnessed momentous things.

Earlier in the film, while talking to his trusted Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln quotes Hamlet to capture his pervasive melancholy:  “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Elsewhere he gives us a sense of his willingness to think beyond conventional boundaries–which includes imagining blacks having full citizenship rights, with a quote from the Roman playwright Terence:  “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

The New Yorker’s David Denby, author of a laudatory review of the film, notices the same thing—not surprisingly given that Denby’s Great Books idenfies him as an enthusiastic fan of classic literature. Here he is giving literature at least some of the credit for Lincoln’s ability to stay grounded in principle while engaging in the dodgy maneuvers that politics sometimes demands:

Part of his genius is that he is capable of going high and low, moving from eloquence to easy banter and profane jokes. He remains saturated in his boyhood reading—Shakespeare, the Bible, Euclid’s maxims—which he relies on as a base of understanding and principle; also as a way of steering through the twists and turns of a politician’s necessary manipulations. As Kushner fashions Lincoln, his love of literature is inseparable from his comprehension of how to move the nation—and also how to appeal to many kinds of men.

The film itself manages a wonderful balance between a very literate script and edge-of-the-seat excitement. Do yourself a favor and go see it.

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2 Comments

  1. Carl Rosin
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Full agreement with this post. I especially appreciated the fact that the film didn’t stop to explain to its audience Lincoln’s erudition, because that would have turned each allusion into a graceless “look-at-me”. My first thought about this movie was, “This is an intelligent film for adults.”

    Lincoln’s fascination with Macbeth (I’m sure there’s a BLTB essay churning in your mind about this already) is well-documented. This 2001 article by historian Michael Knox Beran is full of juicy tidbits about Lincoln’s long relationship with the Scottish play. In the spirit of Better Living Through Beowulf, Beran writes, “We do injustice to a man when we ignore his contention that a particular text has moved him deeply and affected him powerfully.”

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted November 25, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I didn’t know about Lincoln’s fascination with Macbeth, Carl, and will start looking into it. The movie shows him very thoughtful about how power can distort things, even as, in one scene, he pounds his desk in exasperation when he sees how difficult it is even for a man “endowed with immense power” to pick up an extra ten votes to get a bill passed. Thanks so much for the link.

    I have no doubt that Kushner will win the Oscar for best screenplay. It truly is an intelligent film for adults.

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