Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Act of Writing

The accumulation of the personal papers and official records of some public figures allows for the more detailed inquiry into how and why they create, use, and maintain such documents. Abraham Lincoln is one such individual, and the new book by Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), ISBN 1-4000-4039-6, is a study anyone interested in such matters will want to read.

Lincoln’s Sword is an analysis of Lincoln the writer, examining his speeches, newspaper articles, and public pronouncements, exploring why it was that someone who seemed to be a country-bred, backwoods lawyer also gained considerable admiration during his lifetime, and since, for his literary abilities. Wilson examines the abundance of Lincoln documents – with specific attention to some of his most famous documents (Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural) – and reveals how Lincoln worked on such writing efforts. The multiple versions of drafts and fragments of speeches, public pronouncements, and other public writings, reveals how he composed them, revised them, and, often, used them for forming and testing his own ideas about politics, societal issues, and the Civil War. An abundance of reproductions of the original manuscripts helps Wilson make his case for Lincoln’s approach to his literary endeavors.

There are interesting insights into Lincoln’s writing. He would write ideas, phrases, and sentences or paragraphs on small slips of paper, and he would carry these with him as he mulled over an idea or a challenge. Sometimes, he would paste printed matter into a manuscript he was working on and continue to revise and incorporate such material into his essay or speech. Lincoln also sought considerable advice from others, including other well-known political and literary figures, by sending them drafts or partial drafts for comment.

Lincoln’s life, public and private, revolved around the act of writing. According to the author of this study, Lincoln “responded to almost every important development during his presidency, and to many that were not so important, with some act of writing” (p. 6). For Lincoln, “writing was often a form of refuge. . . , a place of intellectual retreat from the chaos and confusion of office where he could sort through conflicting options and order his thoughts with words” (p. 7). In this regard, Wilson’s study reveals what biographical and other investigations about leading figures like Lincoln can reveal about the act of writing and creating documents. As I read about Lincoln’s compulsive scribbling of notes on paper slips, I recalled George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards and the descriptions of the eighteenth century theologian pinning notes to himself while he walked, reusing every scrap of paper, and his elaborate efforts to organize his personal papers, sermon notes, and scholarly manuscripts – a topic I wrote about in “Records in the Hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards and Eighteenth Century Records Management” Records & Information Management Report 19 (November 2003): 7-11.