Friday, November 19, 2010

A little note, long remembered

Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address on this day in 1863. The speech, 246 words long, was part of the dedication ceremonies at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

In his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills puts to rest the myth of Lincoln jotting down his speech on an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. The book is an explication of how Lincoln laboriously crafted his "few appropriate remarks."

The Gettysburg Address, Wills says, was modeled, whether Lincoln knew it or not, after Pericles' funeral oration during ancient Athens' war with Sparta. It made the nightmare battle (57,000 casualties) into a vision of the ideals on which the country was founded. It extolled the dead and exhorted the living to remain true to their cause. It found life in death.

Springfield's Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Lincoln is buried, was dedicated in 1860 in a formal ceremony that celebrated the cemetery’s secluded natural setting as a sacred place where one could be inspired "with devotion to the civic and the holy." Wills says that Lincoln might have attended the dedication. He records that, before the dedication at Gettysburg, Lincoln met with the cemetery’s designer, William Saunders, and lauded him for his "advisable and benefiting arrangement." He admired in particular the arced rows of tombstones, evoking the idea of the equality of those who "gave their last full measure of devotion."