Writing the Gettysburg Address. By Martin P. Johnson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013. 322 pp.
Martin P. Johnson's work on what is probably the world's most famous epideictic speech is, in many ways, a truly remarkable example of exhaustive scholarship whose findings will last generations. He appears to have explored every possible source that might provide even a mere footnote of information about President Abraham Lincoln's address.
Writing the Gettysburg Address traces the development of the speech from its beginnings in Washington, DC, through Lincoln's revisions on the train ride to Gettysburg, his additional corrections when he arrived in his room in Gettysburg, his consultation with Secretary of State William Seward, his last-minute additions and modifications on the morning of the speech (following a brief tour of the Gettysburg grounds), and the cobbling together of several emendations on at least a couple of pieces of paper at the moment of his delivery on that brisk November day.
Johnson acts as the responsible and accurate bibliographer in his work, tracing the various versions of the speech, involving the minute and sometimes relevant changes in the speech as it appeared in its various forms. He even attempts, rather ably, to reach a judgment as to the exact words that Lincoln actually uttered at Gettysburg and what the various other versions, some of them even vetted by Lincoln himself, claimed the president said.
The author also explodes the many myths surrounding the speech, including the one that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope on the train ride from Washington to Gettysburg. The book makes clear that the speech was in fact the result of a long, ongoing attempt by the president to achieve the meaning he intended and how he, at least, modified that meaning after visiting the gruesome gravesites of the fallen soldiers. In this way, Johnson sufficiently puts to rest the misconception that the speech bubbled forth out of Lincoln's pencil or pen (actually both) in some spontaneous overflow of feelings and thoughts following a gigantic burst of imagination.
The book attacks other myths, too, including those that are less harmful and persistent. This great attention to detail suggests that the work deserves the kind of recognition that few other studies (and there have been many) deserve. In fact, it would be difficult to fault Johnson's work in a number of very important areas that have remained largely ignored by...