Saturday, December 09, 2006

Book Review: "The Gettysburg Gospel"

Civil War historian and longtime Gettysburg resident Gabor Boritt knows just about every detail imaginable about Lincoln's speech there on November 19, 1863. And now, so can you! In The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows (a most ironic subtitle), Boritt provides what must be as comprehensive a study of the Gettsyburg Address as any that's ever been written before.

The narrative itself covers the aftermath of the July battle and the organization of the cemetery dedication ceremonies and the strain they put on the town, and also offers a full run-down of those who participated in the dedication. Boritt discusses Lincoln's writing process at length (even though almost nothing is know for certain about the composition of his speech), and adequately portrays the mood of the 19th, with Edward Everett's two-hour oration, Lincoln's two-minute "comment," and the rest of the ceremonies in context.

Some discussion is then given to the aftermath of the speech, from an exhaustive
survey of newspaper coverage and comments in private letters. Boritt traces the speech's slow but steady rise in popularity through the 1880s, when it reached a status approaching that with which it is regarded through the present day. That's all in the first two hundred pages of a 415-page book. The rest is appendices, notes, a very nice bibliography, and the index.

Everett's long oration is reprinted here in full, followed by facsimiles of the various manuscript drafts of Lincoln's speech. Twenty-five pages are given to a line-by-line dissection of the speech through each manuscript copy and also as recorded in several newspapers of the day. Then Boritt subjects the speech to various forms of linguistic analysis in what appears to be an attempt (inconclusive) to render judgment on which published version was the most accurate and/or which manuscript draft Lincoln was reading from.

The text itself was fairly interesting, although I was glad that Boritt overcame the style he used in the first chapter of employing short, choppy sentence fragments to emphasize his (usually speculative) points. Also, my perennial complaint, the notes (good ones!) had no indicators in the text, which made flipping back and forth an obnoxious chore. Simon & Schuster (and all other publishers who engage in this form of abuse) should abandon this practice at the earliest opportunity. If you can't put the footnotes at the bottom of the page - where they belong - at least provide an indication that a note exists.

Boritt's appendices were a bit much; I suspect most readers will skip them entirely and would not be the worse for it. I also don't see much reason to prefer this volume over Garry Wills' excellent Lincoln at Gettysburg ... unless of course you happen to fixate on the different number of characters in each of the five manuscript versions, in which case this is probably the book for you. Not a bad study, to be sure - just neither entirely necessary nor particularly excellent.