This turned out to be a really good book. A number of years ago I read Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Gary Wills and really enjoyed it. At least I think I did – I just took it down from my bookshelf and there's a bookmark at page 148, so maybe I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I did. And as I look at my bookcase, it also appears that I have another book Lincoln's Greatest Speech; the Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White Jr., so I may actually have read about this before. But as the late Ralph Hall once said, there are three nice things about getting older about getting older. You meet new friends every day, a new woman makes you breakfast every morning, and you meet new friends every day.
My point is that even if I didn't remember that I already had a book about this speech, I knew that I was already interested in books about the genius of Lincoln's two short speeches.
Achorn's book is actually weak weak on the address itself – his focus is on the events of the few days leading up to its delivery as a means of acquainting us with Abraham Lincoln and the people he interacted with in Washington DC in the last days of the Civil War as he was beginning to turn to the challenges of Reconstruction. He gives a magnificent insight into Lincoln the man – how desperately ugly and awkward he was, how sorrowful and serious, how hated by so many of those around him, and how unappreciated. But you also get the sense of how extraordinarily intelligent and almost inhumanly patient he was, and how politically astute. By walking through the actions of his days immediately preceding his second inauguration, the book provides a sometimes riveting account of what was actually happening in and around the Capitol before and during the ceremony itself.
Those parts of the book were my favorite. My least favorite were the side visits into the bit players of Lincoln's world – Salmon P. Chase, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, and even John Wilkes Booth. I understand that they provided some insight into the subject matter, but they just weren't as interesting as Lincoln and what he was thinking and doing.
Again, it was surprising how weak the book was on the address itself – when it finally got to Lincoln standing to present his address, it skipped through parts of it and only discussed portions, and most importantly to me it didn't tie – at least adequately I thought – Lincoln's thoughts and policies into the words of the address. It attempted to, but by going through chapter after chapter of minutia, it unfortunately transformed the address to minutia as well. The centerpiece of the book was not the address, but Lincoln as he was preparing and delivering it. If the book had been focused on Lincoln's second inaugural, I wouldn't have noticed this is much, but since it focused on the address itself, I did.
But for that reason, if you're interested in the speech, you need to read this book, because it says a lot about the man who delivered it.