22 September 2009

How Lincoln Lasts

This being the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, I’m not surprised that I took in his Gettysburg Address no fewer than three times this summer.

One was in the form of C. M. Butzer’s Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel. This nonfiction comic that comes in three movements: a brief recounting of the Battle of Gettysburg, the story of how President Lincoln came to the town to help dedicate its military cemetery, and an interpretation of his address in pictures.

The other two times came at Longfellow House, a National Park Service site in Cambridge, where I helped to welcome visitors to events. Once was on Independence Day weekend when a Lincoln impersonator delivered the address. Another was a reading by John Stauffer, author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

On the first occasion, Johnny Monsarrat of Weird Boston Events had come for the Gettysburg material, but told me he wasn’t familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I rattled off the titles of poet’s long narrative poems: The Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline, Paul Revere’s Ride.

Then I discussed another of Longfellow’s contributions to our language: he was one of America’s top creators of clichés. “Into each life some rain must fall”? Longfellow. “I hear the bells on Christmas Day”? Longfellow. “Excelsior!” Longfellow. (Not Stan Lee.) Phrases ranging from “ships that pass in the night” to “Sail on, oh, ship of state!” originally came from Longfellow, though we’ve forgotten their sources.

Of course, Longfellow didn’t create those phrases to be clichés. They were fresh when he came up with them, and rhythmic enough to stick in the mind. But Longfellow was so popular, so reprinted, so memorized, that his phrases have become too familiar to retain their power. Even within his lifetime he was being parodied, as in Lewis Carroll’s “Hiawatha’s Photographing.”

And yet generations of American schoolchildren have also memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Entire books have been written about it. Like some of Longfellow’s poems, the opening has even been set to music (for the show Hair). So give me the right musical backing, and I can start to recite it myself.

Yet the Gettysburg Address hasn’t become cliché. Its familiar phrases—“dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”; “the last full measure of devotion”; “government of the people, by the people, for the people”—are still resonant and powerful.

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