Sunday, February 12, 2017

The books Abraham Lincoln Read

One of my favorite books is a collection Abraham Lincoln's journal entries, letters, and speeches. The sentences he puts together are unique, humorous and inspirational; his thoughts are distinguished with candor and insight to the soul of a human being.

Although I know my writing will never parallel his prose, I wanted to try and learn to write like he did. Specifically, I wanted to study how he chooses his words, developed his sentences/analogies (e.g., “Fat as Falstaff” - an apparent link to Shakespeare), and so on. Since I know that the way you write is influenced by what you read, I started researching books Abraham Lincoln read. Here is the list I collected.

Books Lincoln read while growing up:

  • Aesop’s Fables
  • Arabian Nights
  • The Life of Benjamin Franklin
  • Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • The Life of Francis Marion
  • The Life of George Washington
  • The Bible
  • Lessons in Elocution
  • Kirkland's Grammar

School books Lincoln studied from included:

  • Dilworth’s Spelling Book
  • The Kentucky Preceptor
  • The Columbian Class Book

Books he read as an adult:

  • The Bible
  • Shakespeare
  • George Byron
  • Robert Burns
  • Euclid
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • John Milton
  • Daniel Defoe
  • Thomas Paine
Of course, I know he most likely read more than this and didn't read every book by these authors, so I tried to find out particular works he read. I was able to find direct quotes about what he read or studied.


Lincoln especially enjoyed Shakespeare. James Hackett received a letter from Lincoln that stated:
 “For one of my age I have seen very little of the drama…Some of Shakespeares plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader…I think nothing equals “Macbeth.” It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in “Hamlet” surpasses that commencing “To be or not to be.”
While Lincoln read Shakespeare before becoming President, but he had never seen Shakespeare performed on the stage before becoming President. After that, he rarely missed a chance. In February and March 1864, at one of the most dangerous periods of the Civil War, he took time off from his
duties to see the great tragedian Edwin Booth (John Wilkes Booth’s brother) perform in Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet. Lincoln enjoyed them all. Shakespeare’s sense of humor delighted him, and he was enchanted by the magic of the language.

Shakespeare’s great tragedies were his favorites. Lincoln was often depressed, and he found it easy to relate to Shakespeare’s heroes; he could sympathize with their fears and anxieties. Francis B. Carpenter, an artist who lived half a year in the White House, reported that Lincoln said of Shakespeare:
“It matters not to me whether Shakespeare be well or ill acted; with him the thought suffices.” 
Henry Wilson, a senator from Massachusetts, said that in 1860 Lincoln visited the office of Wilson’s literary journal, “The Chicago Record,” and noted with pleasure the busts of Shakespeare and Burns. Lincoln said,
“They are my two favorite authors, and I must manage to see their birthplaces someday if I can contrive to cross the Atlantic.” 
Joseph G. Cannon, an Illinois political leader who served 46 years in Congress, reported that after Lincoln’s son, Willie, died the President read from Shakespeare, finishing with the passage in King John where Constance cries from the loss of her son. Then Lincoln said,
“Did you ever dream of some lost friend and feel that you were having a sweet communion with him, and yet have a consciousness that it was not a reality?….That is the way I dream of my lost boy Willie.”

George Byron

There are a few contemporaries that noted works of George Byron Lincoln Read. James Matheny, Lincoln’s best man at his wedding, said Lincoln especially liked Byron’s work titled “The Darkness.” Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln's bodyguard, said Lincoln loved Byron’s work entitled “The Dream.” In an interview with William Herndon, Joshua Speed (Lincoln’s closest friend) said that Lincoln especially liked “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”

Other Byron works Lincoln admired included “Lara,” “Don Juan,” “The Bride of Abydos,” and “Mazeppa," according to an Abraham Lincoln scholar that I wrote to 20 or so years ago.

I took an educated guess on what shaped his writing the most. I think it is the Bible, since he is quotes saying he read it as a child and as an adult, which means he read it multiple times. It is also known that Lincoln could quote from many parts of the Bible, with his absolute favorite book was Psalms. Rebecca Pomroy, a Civil War nurse, reported that Lincoln told her, “Yes, they (Psalms) are the best, for I find in them something for every day of the week.”

Although I'm not religious, I've been reading the Bible out loud recently. My wife thinks I'm crazy when I tell her it is part of my plan to become Abraham Lincoln.

(If you are interested in viewing what these book editions, I posted pictures of my Abraham Lincoln books here.)



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