10 Questions for Abraham Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White Jr.
Ronald C. White Jr., a leading Lincoln scholar and visiting professor of history at UCLA, is the author of the recently published "A. Lincoln: A Biography." The book — one of more than 14,000 published on the 16th American president, whose bicentennial (born Feb. 12, 1809) is being celebrated this year — has drawn accolades from critics and a flurry of media attention that helped it land on bestseller lists. White has written two previous bestsellers about Lincoln: "Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural," and "The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words." UCLA Today caught up with him by phone from the East Coast, where he is on a book tour. If you're in Chicago on Feb. 14, you can catch him signing his book at The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop. You’ve written three books on Lincoln. How did this all begin?
In 1992, while teaching in the history department at UCLA, I attended a Lincoln exhibit at the Huntington Library. I decided to offer an elective course on Lincoln and —
always trying to find ways to get students involved —
I took them to the Huntington exhibit. They loved it. I taught the course a second time, and then a third time, when I took the students to the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands. There, reading the Second Inaugural Address, I was just blown away. I wanted to find a book on the address, but I couldn’t —
so I wrote one. What is it about Lincoln that interests you most?
His words. There are many great figures of the past —
political or literary —
that we may teach about in a course. But we’re not quoting their words today, not recalling their words at great events. Lincoln’s words are strangely contemporary. They evoke a strong response even today. Lincoln is a continual source of fascination to Americans too. Why is that?
His life. He starts with less than one year of formal education in a backwoods frontier town in Kentucky. And yet somehow he rises from that to become president of the United States. Lincoln’s story is even more compelling to people in Europe. He’s the American story —
anybody can rise to whatever level they want. What are you conveying in your book title, “A. Lincoln” — the way he signed his name?
I want to evoke the unpretentiousness of Lincoln. There were no street numbers on houses in his day. “A. Lincoln” is what he had on the front of his house in Springfield (Illinois, when he served as state legislator). You draw Lincoln as very human, with human flaws — including his troubled marriage to Mary Todd.
I want to portray him in all his humanity. He’s not some marble god sitting in a memorial. His humor and satire could bite and hurt. He was a shrewd politician. He gets no high marks as a husband, with all that Mary went through with their two young sons dying (at the ages of 2 and 10). This is not a saintly biography, but a story of the development of Lincoln. Lincoln was a powerful communicator. What was it about him that made this possible?
He had the ability to combine high and low culture. He could speak to the common person. I argue that he wasn’t some spontaneous genius, but he worked very, very hard at it. I often say to my students, “There is no such thing as good writing. There is good rewriting
.” That’s what Lincoln did. And there’s a beauty in his language. He wrote “out loud” —
he would whisper a word out loud as he wrote it. For his First Inaugural Address, the last paragraph was suggested by [then Secretary of State] William Seward, whose suggested wording began, “I close.” Lincoln extended it to, “I am loathe to close.” You can hear the music of it. Abraham Lincoln was famously self-educated. Were you surprised by anything you discovered about his reading habits?
He loved poetry. That’s one of the keys as to why he was a good speaker. John F. Kennedy also loved poetry. Our best speakers have an ear for poetry. Lincoln loved to read Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Shakespeare. He said he read with two senses: his eyes and his ears. He loved to read poetry aloud, to hear the sound of it. One of his secretaries said, “The president read Shakespeare until my ears almost burned off.” You report that he constantly wrote notes to himself.
He would write notes on little slips of paper and stow them in his top hat or in the bottoms of the drawers of his desk. He was thinking things through. He always began with a problem: The problem of slavery. The problem of secession. The problem of the Dred Scott decision. He would work his way into looking at the problem through his writing. I call his notes his “intellectual diary.” Sometimes his notes would become the basis of a future speech. President Barack Obama looks to Lincoln as a mentor. What could Obama learn from Lincoln?
The most important lesson Lincoln could teach Obama is that he will need to school himself. Lincoln taught himself to be president on the job. Painfully aware of his own shortcomings —
in administrative abilities and military understanding, to name but two —
his success wasn’t simply in the nature of his political genius … but in the hard work he expended day after wearing day in the White House. Is there more you want to write about Lincoln?
My editor tells me I’ve now become a presidential biographer. We’re exploring other presidents. There’s something wonderful about being a biographer, and to be a presidential biographer is quite challenging. You’re trying to capture a person that at one level is known somewhat to the public, yet you have to suggest aspects of the person that are not known, a new vision. You want your readers to say, “We thought we knew them… but here’s a whole new point of view.”
For more on White and his books, see this website