- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

It is an experience we've all had. You want to like some people. The harder you try, the harder they make it. Finally, more in anger with yourself than at them, you give up. So it is with books, especially books that intentionally reveal their authors' inner workings. I kept trying to like "November: Lincoln's Elegy at Gettysburg." The author kept making it harder. Halfway through the book, all I wanted to do was track him down, grasp him firmly by the stacking swivel and scream, "Would you please grow up?"

Then, for one magnificent chapter, he does. No, it doesn't redeem the book, not exactly. But his work takes on a rather different aura thereafter.

Kent Gramm is program director of the Seminary Ridge Historical Foundation, author of two other Civil War books and a former college teacher. His academic background is in theology and literature, not history. His plan for the book was to spend a November at Gettysburg, ruminating on Abraham Lincoln's address on the 19th, plus other events of the month: John F. Kennedy's assassination, the death of World War I British poet Wilfred Owen, the signing of the armistice that ended that war, the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, the life of his father to name only a few.

Each chapter takes as its title a phrase from the Gettysburg Address; content varies. Indeed, the book is a strange counterpoise of historical minutiae the kind beloved of tour guides and postmodern deep thoughts. The prose varies (or meanders) in similar manner.

Sometimes you feel like you're reading a National Park Service brochure or a History Channel script, other times well, a pretentious undergraduate essay. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

The historical nuggets can be interesting, even arresting. The book is spoiled, however, by Mr. Gramm's incessant moaning over how World War I destroyed our faith in everything, and how lost the baby-boom generation is, due mostly to Lee Harvey Oswald, Vietnam, and a postmodern deconstruction that has left us let us sit on the ground and tell sad stories; it is group therapy time not only bereft of belief, but no longer knowing how to believe.

Yes, World War I made folks pretty cynical. Yet we managed to win World War II, the Cold War, and (more recently) kick a couple dents in Saddam Hussein and the jihad boys.

Yes, the baby boomers are still, as they say, "conflicted." But how many times can you bear to run across phrases such as "we sit here with our wounds, our memories, and our corroded middle age" and sentences announcing: "I am a living breathing citizen of the United States at the turn of the millennium. I am therefore a hazard to myself and others."

Get a life.

Then he does. Or more aptly, Lincoln gives him a taste of one. Mr. Gramm writes knowingly and with discernment of the president's life, politics and personality. He knows the Gettysburg trivia as well as the narrative. Then he comes to the speech itself, to explain it. Here he weaves another counterpoint, assessing the elegy as Lincoln understood it, and as we might.

Postmodern literary theory, especially deconstruction, has oft been ridiculed for its insistence that meaning resides in the mind of the reader, not the author. When taken to extremes, the concept is ludicrous. But it is also true that for words to transcend their times, we must amplify the text with our own intuitions and meanings.

Deconstructionists sometimes call this deference, literally defer-ence, the full meanings of a work arising generations and centuries after its presentation to the world.

When Mr. Gramm takes the Gettysburg Address straight on, and drops the postmodern ennui and the boomer self-pity, his prose is transfigured. He doesn't merely analyze a greatness that "we" have lost; he responds to that greatness in ways he has denied he or "we" ever could.

Once again, Lincoln has brought out the best in someone. It would be senseless to discuss this rich and brilliant chapter here. Just read it.

Then it's back to boomer postmodernism as usual. But not entirely. The sneering lessens; the prose and thought improve. The fire that touched him may have gone, but a few embers remain. Perhaps there's a lesson of some relevance to the world born of September 11.

For all the treasons and all the sulks of all the politically correct intellectuals, we still possess the capability to respond to nobility. Now we are involved in yet another war.

We need Lincoln's nobility once again, to inspire and refurbish our own. We know we do. Having shrugged off all those who tell us he's gone, we find him anew, and in our minds refreshed.

Ten thousand postmodernists notwithstanding, he's still here, among us. In fact, he never left.

How could he have?


Philip Gold is senior fellow in national security affairs at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.



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