|Unit History Project|
Paper Prepared and Read
Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
Thousands of years ago a wise man said that “of the making of books there is no end.” If the vision of that wise man had been so penetrating ass to enable him to look beyond the destruction not only of most of the volumes which then appalled him, but also past that of thousands of others between his time and ours down into the present era, and to see the ever swelling flood of publications continually issuing from innumerable printing presses throughout the civilized world, his bewilderment might well have been exaggerated to the point of despair. Even to ourselves who have watched the literary torrent since the middle of our century, and who may be said to be “to the manner born,” wonder, becomes merged into perplexity when we try to select from the great mass a remnant to be considered as a ktema es aei --- a treasure to be held sacred by all future generations. That remnant, if we can find it, is literature in its truest meaning; but in how small a degree men of culture and perspicacity are able to judge of the permanent value of contemporary writing may be seen by looking backward to the times when Hamlet and King Lear were held as rubbish by the learned admirers of Euphues, and when John Bunyan was not regarded at all by the courtly gentlemen who found their ideals of excellence in the productions of Wycherley and Van Brugh.
If I were to define my own idea of literature I should say that literature consists, in its essence, of the crystallization of truths --- truths of sentiment, of feeling and of the imagination, as well as truths regarding actual events --- the crystallization of truths into words, concise, fitting, and impressive, so that they build themselves into the thoughts and memories of men of all succeeding ages. In that sense Abraham Lincoln was a maker of literature. Better and more clearly than any other he compressed into his first and second inaugural addresses, and into the Gettysburg address, the sorrow, the tenderness, the stern resolve, and the infinite charity of the loyal people of this country. Why should not those papers be read as long as the greatest crisis of modern civilization is remembered among men? To my mind they are a part of the enduring literature of the world notwithstanding their author’s pathetic disavowal: “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Already what Lincoln said over the graves of the dead heroes of Gettysburg has become as much a part of history as any detail of that great battle where the flood tide of rebellion surged against insuperable cliffs of patriotism, and was turned back into the dark recesses of failure, divested of every shadow of refluent power.
If oratory is “action, action, action,” as has so long been claimed and admitted, then Lincoln was not an orator. But if it is, as I prefer to believe, the possession and use of the divine faculty to impress one’s self by speech not only upon multitudes within hearing, but also upon infinitely greater multitudes far distant in present time and reaching away into the illimitable future, then he was one of the greatest orators of all the ages. Take, for instance, the Gettysburg ceremonies of September, 1863, to which I have already referred, and which took place little more than two months after the thunder of artillery had ceased to reverberate among the Pennsylvania hills. The surroundings were magnificent. The audience was perhaps the grandest ever assembled at one time in the history of the world. The occasion was of the highest character, and the piece de resistance of oratory was heard from the lips of the most accomplished master of the art of eloquence then living on the western continent. The work of Edward Everett on that day was held by good judges to have been easily comparable to the great eulogium of Pericles at Ceramicus over the Athenian dead of the Peloponnesian war. It was a moment of Parian marble, pure and cold, but satisfying the artistic sense, a worthy commemoration of the deeds of heroes in an heroic age. The words of Lincoln were all spoken in little more than five minutes from their beginning, but every one of them was ineffaceably impressed upon the hearts of his bearers. By the side of Everett’s marble, Lincoln’s address was the resplendent diamond set forever upon the coronet of time among the most precious and priceless of her jewels.
In earlier years he had shown that he was a thorough student of men in all their aspects, and that he possessed an extraordinary power in compelling their unwilling assent to propositions of politics and political morality, highly unpopular when first brought before the public; but here, when confronted by the great occasion, he rose superior to the commonplaces of humanity, and spoke the language of celestial tongues. To him of whom these things can be truly said, it seems to me must be awarded with the many other chaplets laid before his shrine, the laurels justly belonging to the creator of enduring literature and to the master of such eloquence as has moved and exalted the world.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History