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Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

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Lincoln:  The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan
HarperCollins Publishers
October 28, 2008

Award-winning author Fred Kaplan argues that it is impossible to separate Lincoln's literary career from his life story and explores, in the first book which addresses this defining aspect of Lincoln's persona, just how literature helped mold his mind and prose style.

Noting the ongoing relevance on this topic, Kaplan points out that this biography "speaks to the failure of the modern presidency and reminds us that the effective and honest use of language is a necessity for a successful democracy.  For Lincoln, words mattered immensely.  His increasing skill in their use during his lifetime, and his high valuation of their power, mark him as the one president who was both a national leader and a genius with language at a time when its power and integrity mattered immensely."

An avid reader since childhood with early aspirations of becoming a writer, the self-taught Lincoln engineered his rise from hardscrabble roots to the White House largely through his immersion in books.  His nuanced views on human nature, politics and philosophy were particularly influenced by Byron, Burns, Shakespeare and Emerson.  Although not a spellbinding orator or gifted improviser, Lincoln used his meticulously crafted compositions to reach audiences and articulate his ideas with an eloquence, reason, rigor and passion which still resonate to this day.

 

Sifting through essays, poems, speeches, love letters, legal briefs and other documents, such as Lincoln's hitherto never discussed yet beautifully crafted argument before the U.S. Supreme Court - which taken as a whole reveal the breadth and profundity of Lincoln's creative gifts as well as new details about his most crucial decisions in and out of office - Kaplan makes a compelling case for Lincoln's inclusion in the canon of great American writers.  In an age when Oval Office messages are drafted by teams of hired professionals, and feel good rhetoric too often obfuscates the facts, Lincoln pays tribute to a rare presidential wordsmith of extraordinary ability, transcendent vision and remarkable truthfulness.

Fred Kaplan is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  He is the author of several biographies, including The Singular Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, Henry James, The Imagination of Genius, Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.  He lives in Boothbay, Maine.