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.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Lincoln and the Creation of Archives

A veritable industry on Abraham Lincoln is in full swing once again. Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (New York: Harper, 2008) is an interesting addition to the literature, with some comments about Lincoln’s writing that has some insights in the creation of his archival corpus. Kaplan indicates that, for Lincoln, “language mattered because he needed it to work through what seemed to him real, to separate fact from falsehood. It mattered even more because he began to feel that only through writing and speech could be understand the world. He needed language as the tool by which knowledge was acquired and communicated. Also, he took satisfaction in how language worked and in the pleasure of words and rhythms” (p. 31). Her we have some understanding of the motivation guiding Lincoln in his correspondence, speech writing, and other writing. Later, Kaplan suggests that “Lincoln had no doubt that the written word was superior to the spoken: a text provided the advantage of stale portability and unalterable futurity” (p.134). And, we certainly have seen how this has worked out as Lincoln added a number of key texts to the American documentary canon.

In his study, Kaplan captures something of Lincoln’s skills as a storyteller, considers his literary aspirations, provides some close examinations of Lincoln’s letters as literary expositions, and describes how Lincoln carried a notebook on the campaign trail, using it to manage his thoughts and speeches (the notebook was later lost). Other aspects of the importance of documents in Lincoln’s life and career are commented on. Lincoln was elected captain of the volunteer militia company in the Black Hawk war, because, “Unlike most, he could read and write and fill out forms, and he stood taller on the ground and in the saddle than anyone else” (p. 55). Lincoln wrote a text against the divinity of scriptures. “Testimony varies as to whether it was an essay or a pamphlet-length argument. Samuel Hill and some of Lincoln’s other friends, thinking it imprudent for a rising politician to publish such views, convinced him to destroy, or forced the destruction of, the manuscript” (p. 71). There is even an extended description of an 1837 legal case, about the veracity of some deeds, where it appears Lincoln manipulated evidence to win the case (pp. 94-98).