Friday, July 15, 2016

Abraham Lincoln As a Storyteller

From a cartoon (originally published in Harper’s Weekly Magazine, 
September 17th, 1864)
Abraham Lincoln is idealized as this tall, stoic, bearded giant who wore a black stove pipe hat and never smiled. The real Abraham Lincoln was nothing like that. He was a jokester. He enjoyed entertaining people with his stories and making them laugh. William Howard Russell noted in his diary, “Mr. Lincoln raises a laugh by some bold west-country anecdote, and moves off in the cloud of merriment produced by his joke.”

His friend, Joshua Speed said, “humor was an integral part of the way in which Mr. Lincoln created and cemented friendships.”

From all accounts, Lincoln was folksy in the way he talked. His law partner in Springfield, William Herndon, described his voice as somewhat squeaky, maybe even high-pitched and shrill. It may have even occasionally cracked as he was speaking.

George Alfred Townsend in his book, The Real Life of Abraham Lincoln, says:


“No man ever told so many stories, and he was seldom known either to repeat one twice or tell one that was hackneyed. His long, variable and extensive experience with common native people made him acquainted with a thousand oddities, and he had a familiar way of relating them that was as piquant as his application of them. It is also true that some of these stories were more cogent than delicate.”

Lamon confirms this, saying “His humor was not of a delicate quality, it was chiefly exercised in hearing and telling stories of the grosser sort.” Lamon says “telling and hearing ridiculous stories was one of his[Lincoln’s] ruling passions…The most trifling incident reminded him of a story, and that reminded him of another until everybody marveled that one small head could carry all he knew.”


Where did he get all of that knowledge? Lincoln had a way of listening to people, and really hearing what they said. Everything he heard, and every experience he lived, he packed away as fodder for his stories.

A childhood friend, Nat Grigsby said, “…the boys would gather and cluster around him to hear him talk. Mr. Lincoln was figurative in his speech, talks, and conversation. He argued much from analogy and explained things hard for us to understand by stories, maxims, tales, and figures. He would almost always point his lesson or idea by some story that was plain and near us, that we might instantly see the force and bearing of what he said.”

William Herndon says Lincoln rarely read books. When he did, he would sprawl himself flat on his back across the floor. That was his favorite way to read. He didn’t read books very often. Newspapers were his favorite reading material. He read every one he could get his hands on. Lincoln subscribed to the Richmond Enquirer and The Charleston Mercury, and it was the information in these papers that helped to develop his views on slavery.

More importantly, he had a way of recalling all of his experiences and shaping them into stories that fit the situation he was in. Many of his stories were impromptu, but just as many were well thought out and planned.

When Lincoln had an important speech to write he would scribble bits and pieces of it on scraps of paper as the ideas came to him. He stored these building blocks in his pockets and his hat. When the time came to put it all together, he would dig them out and fashion those tiny scraps into a polished written speech. 

(Excerpt from my book, I Wish I Was Never Born: Rediscovering Abraham Lincoln)

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