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May 13, 2004

TT: Ghost writers in the sky

Ever since I got back from Monticello the other day, I've been thinking about American presidents who could write--not just competently, but with real distinction. The list is very short, and though it has some unexpected names on it (did you know that Calvin Coolidge was a classicist?), I doubt many people would question the presence of Abraham Lincoln at its head. Rhetorically speaking, Lincoln was America's Churchill, and so it's not altogether surprising that I felt the urge to reread David Herbert Donald's Lincoln, by common consent the greatest of modern Lincoln biographies, though I confess to still getting pleasure out of the one-volume abridgement of Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln, albeit for rather different reasons. (Interestingly, Donald isn't snobbish about Sandburg's much-maligned book, which he correctly describes as "the most imaginative and humanly flavorful of all the [Lincoln] biographies.")

One of the passages in Lincoln that struck me most forcibly when I first read it in 1995 was Donald's description of the writing of the First Inaugural Address. It seems that Lincoln had help--quite substantial help, in fact--in drafting the unforgettable last paragraph of that immortal speech. William Seward, soon to become Lincoln's secretary of state, told the president-elect that he needed to "meet and remove prejudice and passion in the South, and despondency and fear in the East," and suggested the following lines:

I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren....The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

Lincoln rewrote them as follows:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies....The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

To compare these two versions is to receive an invaluable lesson in the difference between a good idea and a great piece of writing. Even so, anyone ignorant of American history who saw both versions set up in parallel columns would very likely suspect the second writer of having plagiarized the first one. Without doubt, the coda of the First Inaugural wouldn't have existed had Seward not supplied Lincoln with his preliminary draft--yet what Lincoln did to Seward's clunky prose cannot be dismissed as mere editing. If I may borrow an example from the world of jazz, it's more like what Gil Evans did to the slow movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez when he "arranged" Sketches of Spain for Miles Davis. Evans' version of Concierto de Aranjuez is not an "original" composition in the normal meaning of the word. It is based explicitly on Rodrigo's music. Yet it is pure Gil Evans, so completely transformed as to have become an independent composition, one arguably superior to its source material. So who's the composer?

Real editing, even at its best, is a different thing entirely, though the difference can be subtle to the point of tenuity. I worked as a magazine and newspaper editor for many years before becoming a full-time freelance writer, and on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion I edited a piece so extensively that had it been a screenplay, I would have received an on-screen credit. When the piece won a major magazine award a few months later, I smiled wryly, as did my colleagues, yet it never occurred to any of us to blow the whistle on the writer. He "wrote" the piece, and that, so far as we were concerned, was that.

One reason why I kept my mouth shut is that I've been the beneficiary of superior editing on innumerable occasions, never that extensive but at times...well, quite substantial. At the time of the original publication of one of the best essays in A Terry Teachout Reader, I received a letter of praise from a well-known author who singled out for particular comment a sentence I hadn't written. To be sure, it had been implicit in my draft, but I didn't make it fully manifest: my editor did the job for me, and I gladly accepted his contribution. That sentence now appears in the Teachout Reader without benefit of asterisk or footnote. It's taken for granted that I wrote it, and I don't propose to blow the whistle on myself now. That's what good editors do--they make your stuff better by any means necessary, and they keep their mouths shut about it.

I remembered that sentence of "mine" when I read the two drafts of the last paragraph of Lincoln's First Inaugural. It amuses me to know that Lincoln relied so heavily on Seward's contribution--yet I'm awed by the use he made of it. Does that knowledge lessen my admiration for Lincoln the writer and rhetorician? If anything, it makes me admire him all the more. As T.S. Eliot wrote in The Sacred Wood, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion."

I'm neither a poet nor a Lincoln, but I'm a good enough critic to know the carpentry of a great writer when I see it--even if he borrowed the lumber from someone else's yard.

Posted May 13, 2004 9:25 AM

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