At some point every semester, I ask the journalism students I teach a question that is meant to make them rethink some of the assumptions they might hold about their chosen trade. I ask them this: “Who is the most important American writer?”
It triggers a classroom expedition whose itinerary you can probably guess: embarking from the Morocco-bound pantheon, branching into private fandom and detouring into willful obscurities - novelists all, usually, even though we’re in a temple of fact - before I try to steer them toward my chosen destination by asking the question again, underlining the word “important.”
“Whose words meant more than any others’?” I ask.
“Jefferson,” somebody will often say then, recognizing the direction I’m heading in and citing the Declaration of Independence. Close - grabby lede, soaring kicker, but a saggy middle, so no, not quite. It takes a long time to finally reach Abraham Lincoln.
I suspect the game might be up now, though, and that my pedagogical odyssey might shorten the next time I try it. If Lincoln the movie enters its own pantheon at the Academy Awards on Sunday—its nominations include best picture and best actor—then the answer to my question might become self evident, because I’m hard-pressed to imagine how anyone could see it and believe there is any other answer.
Lincoln is a movie that is, gloriously and thrillingly, about words. It is bracketed by brief bits of carnage - amazingly little, considering that it unfolds during the bloodiest war in our history - but it is bracketed, too, by words, the same words that bracket the wise and weary marble figure inside the memorial on whose walls they are carved: the Gettysburg Address, recited back to Lincoln by some soldiers at the start, and the Second Inaugural, delivered by Lincoln himself at the end.
Movies find their moments, and the words in Lincoln that have gotten the most attention are the words that seem to fit so presciently this moment of partisan rancor in Washington - the words of Lincoln the conciliator and compromiser, the horse trader and vote wheedler, the moralist who is unafraid to be a politician, too. It is hard to come away from the movie without wishing that our leaders would take their lessons from it. Sequestration, after all, seems far less daunting a problem to solve than slavery.
But the Lincoln I saw was the Lincoln I want my students to learn from. It was Lincoln the writer. The movie is blessedly free of the tropes through which writers are usually portrayed - the earnest scratching on paper, the brow kneading, the crumpled drafts on the floor, the gazing out the window in search of the muse - and yet it manages a fuller and truer portrait of a writer than almost any other I’ve seen on screen.
Writing, as Holden Caulfield observed in The Catcher in the Rye, is not just a matter of putting “all the commas and stuff in the right places.” Yes, you need to know about grammar and punctuation, and also about word choice and sentence rhythm, imagery and dialogue, character and description. You need to be handy with a wide range of rhetorical tools.
But none of those technical skills matter if you are not also what Lincoln most profoundly was: a clear thinker. Writing is thinking, and if you don’t think clearly about what you want to say, what story you want to tell, you will never write clearly about it. Clarity - of thought, of purpose, of expression - is the cardinal virtue of good writing, and it shines abundantly through everything Lincoln says and does in the movie. Writing is not just what happens at a desk. It happens everywhere and always, whenever your mind encounters a thought it wants to wrap words around.
I have a mantra in class: “Readers do no work.” If you’re James Joyce or Toni Morrison or any other writer lavishly blessed with the gifts of linguistic prestidigitation, you can presume that your readers signed up for the ride, expecting that some heavy lifting might be required of them. Most of us, though - and all of us in the realms of nonfiction and journalism - cannot presume that. It is for us to do the work first, so that none is required of our readers. Clear thinking leads to clear writing, which leads, most importantly, to clear understanding.
Writing doesn’t get much clearer than the Gettysburg Address, the first thing I ask my students to read. It’s barely a third of the length of an op-ed column. As Garry Wills has memorably pointed out, Lincoln is reimagining America from the very first line, by taking Jefferson’s words to heart in a way that the slaveholding Jefferson himself did not, and by elevating the Declaration of Independence, with its promise that “all men are created equal,” above the Constitution, which reneges on that promise, as the defining document of our nation. If you’re going to ask a boy from Maine to die fighting a boy from Georgia in a field in Pennsylvania, you’d better be clear on why, and he was.
“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes,” Edward Everett, whose long oration preceded Lincoln’s short one, wrote to him later.
My own favorite entry in the Lincoln canon is even shorter, a scrap of paper that the editors of his collected works speculatively dated to the summer of 1858, during his failed Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas, but that appears in none of his speeches or other writings. It is an entire philosophy of both morality and government in three sentences.
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” Lincoln wrote. “This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”
To be clear without being commonplace - that is the elusive goal of good writing as defined by Aristotle in his Poetics. No American writer was ever more so than the lanky, haunted figure thinking and writing his way toward the Oscars, bumping into ideas and finding clear and uncommon ways to fit them into words.