Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Abe Lincoln's Address

Seven score and six years ago (if I've got the arithmetic right), the terminally worried and sleep-deprived 16th U.S. President had traveled on the clattering cars north from Washington, D. C. up to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Up until the previous summer, when all manner of evil racketing nightmare and nobility was visited upon the place over the course of three impossibly hot and dreadful days in July 1863, few people had ever heard of that sleepy little college town. More than three months later, the ground thereabouts was still spongy with all of the blood shed there. All these years later, Gettysburg, PA, is and will ever be the high-water mark of the Confederacy, the farthest Robt. E. Lee was ever to lead his raggedy Army of Virginia. A place known for suffering and roaming spectral spirits of young men ripped out of their lives before their natural times. And a place where Abraham Lincoln gave a little speech at the dedication for the new national cemetery. [Lame old joke: What's the Gettysburg Address? Where Abe Lincoln used to live.] Today's the anniversary of that grievous, auspicious ceremony on November 19, 1863.
I spent today [the 18th, as I write] talking to four groups of young citizens - young Pennsylvanians, as a matter of fact, - about the business of writing and illustrating history and I've spent the last few minutes wishing that I'd reminded them of this solemn anniversary tomorrow [today, as you read]. At least I thought to tell the 6th & 7th graders that the passing on of our stories is one clear definition of civilization and that the telling isn't merely up to us authors. It's up to us all. What IS up to us authors of historical nonfiction and our colleagues in the classrooms is making sure that the stories, civilization's torches, are lit up bright, clear, and true. Think of it as a way of making sure that the 'government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'

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