July 09, 2020 On the Papers

What, in Addition to Its Contents, Makes the Gettysburg Address So Memorable?

The more we become sensitive to Lincoln's structural and rhythmical devices, the more we can incorporate them into our own prose

by George D. Gopen

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Everyone who writes about Lincoln’s great speeches agrees that he was a consummate master of rhetoric. They note how skillfully he borrows from the Bible. They sometimes laud his lofty tone. But then they usually change the topic. Almost no one—perhaps no one—attends to the influential cause that makes the Gettysburg Address not only memorable but memorizable. They do not work with its structure. They do not note its music. In attending to these highly important matters, important to Lincoln as well as to us, this essay will try to give you a new way of appreciating one of the greatest masterpieces of American political rhetoric. And as a result, I hope that it, together with the essays that follow this one in the On the Papers series, will begin to offer you a new way of understanding how your own prose can range beyond clarity and achieve the power of elegance.

Illustration by Tim Bower

Illustration by Tim Bower

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