One-Minute Book Reviews

November 19, 2008

Why Was Gettysburg So Important? (Quote of the Day / Drew Gilpin Faust in ‘This Republic of Suffering,’ a 2008 National Book Award Finalist)

“… we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.”
– From the Gettysburg Address, delivered Nov. 19, 1863

The Gettysburg Address is the greatest speech in American history and one of the country’s supreme works of literature. Yet you can listen to the full text in just 1 minute and 46 seconds in an audio version on Wikipedia.

Why did such a brief speech have such power? The answer goes beyond Abraham Lincoln’s sublime words, the subject of a masterly book-length analysis by Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster, 1992). The power of the speech comes also from the occasion for it: the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, not long after Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

Drew Gilpin Faust provides a rich context for the address in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction, the winner of which will be named tonight www.nationalbook.org.

Gilpin Faust notes that Gettysburg belonged to a new group of battlefield cemeteries, created during the Civil War, that were more than places to bury the dead:

“These cemeteries were intended to memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes. Gettysburg represented a particularly important turning point. The large numbers of casualties in that bloody battle were obviously an important factor in generating action, but it is not insignificant that the carnage occurred in the North, in a town that had not had the opportunity to grow accustomed to the horrors of the constant warfare that had battered Virginia for two long years. Gettysburg made the dead – and the problem they represented – starkly visible to northern citizens, so many of whom flocked to the small Pennsylvania town in the aftermath of the battle. Perhaps even more critical was the fact that the North had resources with which to respond, resources not available to the hard-pressed Confederacy.

“The impetus for the Gettysburg cemetery arose from a meeting of state agents in the weeks after the battle. With financial assistance from Union states that had lost men in the engagement, David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, arranged to purchase seventeen acres adjoining an existing graveyard. In October contracts were let for the reburial of Union soldiers in the new ground at a rate of $1.59 for each body. In November Lincoln journeyed to help dedicate the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. This ceremony and the address that historian Gary Wills has argued ‘remade America’ signaled the beginning of a new significance for the dead in public life. Perhaps the very configuration of the cemetery can explain the force behind this transformation. The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s words, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station. This was a dramatic departure from the privileging of rank and station that prevailed in the treatment of the war dead …”

To read the full text of the Gettysburg Address or listen to a reading of it on Wikipedia, click here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address. Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University www.harvard.edu.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 16, 2008

A Great Presidents’ Day Book for 8-to-12-Year-Olds: Russell Freedman’s ‘Lincoln’

If the children’s department of your public library has put up a Presidents’ Day display, it probably includes Russell Freedman’s Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion, 160 pp., $20). And well it should. In this innovative book Freedman marries the picture-book and chapter-book forms to create a dynamic portrait of Abraham Lincoln that deals extensively with his youth and early adulthood but also covers his presidency and the Civil War. First published in 1987, Lincoln: A Photobiograpy was one of the most acclaimed books of children’s nonfiction of the 1980s, when it won the 1988 Newbery Medal and “Best Books of the Year” honors from School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. Freedman has also written other excellent nonfiction books for tweens discussed in an earlier post www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/03/ (which recommended them for 9-to-12-year-olds, though they may appeal to some younger children who are strong readers).

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 29, 2006

James L. Swanson Follows the Trail of John Wilkes Booth

A taut true-crime story about the search for Lincoln’s assassin

Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. Morrow, 448 pp., $26.95.

Over Thanksgiving dinner I told one of the smartest people I know that I had just finished Manhunt, the true story of the attempt to capture the man who killed Abraham Lincoln. “Why did John Wilkes Booth kill Lincoln, anyway?” my friend asked. “Was he just crazy?”

I couldn’t have answered before I read Manhunt and, no doubt, many people still can’t. One of the chief virtues of this fascinating book is that it reminds us how little we know about some of the most familiar events in American history.

Lincoln scholar James L. Swanson hasn’t written a biography or a character study of Booth but a true-crime story about what happened between the actor’s escape from Ford’s Theatre after the assassination and his arrest at a barn in Virginia 12 days later. So he leaves unanswered many questions about Booth’s mental stability. Instead he casts the actor as a passionate white supremacist who saw Lincoln as a tyrant and was enraged by the president’s recent call for limited black suffrage. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, but strong Confederate armies remained at large in parts of the South, and their leaders had not taken their cues from Lee. Booth may have been delusional enough to believe that, by killing Lincoln, he could affect what remained of the Civil War.

For all its absence of psychological insight, this story is rich in adventures worthy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Swanson follows Booth and an accomplice from Ford’s Theatre to the homes of Confederate sympathizers in Maryland and a pine thicket where they hid for five days until they believed they could safely cross the Potomac to Virginia in small boat under cover of darkness. And although he occasionally he describes thoughts by Booth that he appears to have had no way to know, he documents most of the story meticulously.

Manhunt came out just before Presidents’ Day, and some critics may omit it from holiday gift lists in favor of more recent titles. That’s too bad, because this book has much to offer adults and teenagers with a passion for U.S. History. Many of us learned from our teachers that after shooting Lincoln, Booth leaped onto the stage at Ford’s and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” – “Thus always to tyrants.” How many of us learned that he first said something else? Before leaving the president’s box, Booth shouted a single word: “Freedom!”

Best line: “John Wilkes Booth’s escape and disappearance unfolded as though scripted not by a master criminal, but by a master dramatist. Each additional day of Booth’s absence from the stage intensified the story’s dramatic arc.”

Worst line: Swanson describes what Booth was thinking just before his arrest in lines like: “Suicide? Never that shameful end, Booth vowed to himself. Richard III did not commit suicide, Macbeth did not die by his own hand, nor Brutus …” Swanson provides many endnotes, but none makes clear how he could have known this.

Editors: Michael Morrison at HarperCollins and Lisa Gallagher at Morrow

Published: February 2006. HarperPerennial paperback to be published February 20007. www.jameslswanson.com

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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