FLR: You are most widely known for writing biographies about writers. How did you decide to write about Abraham Lincoln as a writer? Did you feel like it was more or less difficult than writing about the writing of an established author?
FK: As a young boy growing up in New York’s lower East Side almost a hundred years ago, my father was given a book as a school prize called The Perfect Tribute about how Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. He gave that book to me when I was a boy. I wanted to be a writer. And I eventually became a published writer by writing about writers, though infinitely better ones than I am. When I read Lincoln’s compositions—his poems and essays as well as his speeches—he seemed to me a great writer in his own way. About fifteen years ago I gave a course in Lincoln as a great American writer. The students agreed with me. And since no one had previously taken this view of Lincoln, I decided that it was my mission to write a biography of Lincoln the main emphasis of which would be the origin, growth, and achievement of his genius with words. It was not more difficult than writing about Charles Dickens or Henry James or Mark Twain. But it was different because Lincoln was a major participant in making history. And the history that he made was inseparable from his writing.
FLR: In the year of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, what sets Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer apart from other Lincoln books, other than the obvious angle featuring Lincoln as a writer?
FK: I don’t think of it as an angle. I believe it’s central to Lincoln’s personality, his sensibility, and his achievement as a political leader. A few books have touched on Lincoln’s literary gifts. But mine is the first life of Lincoln that narrates how inseparable his genius with words was from his political achievement. And how the personality of Lincoln can’t be revealed and understood without synthesizing what he read—the authors he even memorized, like Shakespeare, Burns, and Byron—with what he was and became.
FLR: What discovery about Lincoln most astounded you? Did you feel like you found a lot of new information in your research?
FK: Two things astounded me: that Lincoln became an extremely sophisticated intellectual with a literary and philosophical mind, so different from how he’s often been depicted; and that no other writer on Lincoln had noticed that Lincoln argued a case before the United State Supreme Court—he wrote a brilliant brief, which I quote from and summarize, and lost the case.
FLR: Speaking of your research, what is your method for researching an individual about whom you have chosen to write? Do you tend to do all your research first before beginning any of the writing process?
FK: I try to do all the research first and absorb it so that it becomes a part of me. At the same time, I usually begin writing little parts of the book, usually no longer than paragraphs, while I’m still doing the research because ideas come to me and words come to me and I can’t resist writing them down.
FLR: Were there things about Lincoln you learned that you were unable to include in the book?
FK: The Lincoln archives have been so thoroughly researched by so many scholars that I doubt that much new let alone sensational will ever be discovered. But I wouldn’t hesitate to tell the truth about Lincoln, warts and all, and I and others have.
FLR: Tell us the relationship between this book and the one you wrote about Mark Twain.
FK: Mark Twain was the Lincoln of our literature and Lincoln was the Mark Twain of our politics. Both were geniuses with language, masters of the tall tale and the colloquial idiom with a gift for humor, and at the same time both were deeply sad and pessimistically realistic about human nature. Self educated, both were deeply educated through reading. And both have never been fully enough credited for their brilliantly analytic minds. When I was writing about Mark Twain, Lincoln frequently came to mind.
FLR: Abraham Lincoln was a voracious reader who basically taught himself everything he knew. Do you think that says more about the power of tenacity or the power of reading?
FK: Not tenacity, though Lincoln was a tenacious man. It was the power of reading, the experience that reading provides. Lincoln became a riveted and compulsive reader. It gave him pleasure and enriched his life, and from early on he realized that it was through what he learned from reading that he could rise in the world and in his own self-esteem.
FLR: What would you most want a librarian to know about the book? When a librarian tells a patron about this book, what would you most like him or her to mention?
FK: That it is the first story of Lincoln’s life that shows how important reading and writing were to him and that he became a great writer and a great political leader simultaneously. They were inseparable. And that the book speaks to one of the fundamental challenges that a democratic country faces: how can we have more leaders like Lincoln who use language honestly and effectively.
FLR: Do you feel that it is still essential for our government’s leaders to be able to express themselves through written communication?
FK: Yes. All the words our leaders speak, especially our presidents, are scripted, mostly by speechwriters, even seemingly extemporaneous campaign speeches. Presidents, etc., should be made to write their own speeches, at least most of them. Talk less, write and read more. If they can’t, they should go back to school or find another profession. And each word should be tested by the highest standards of honesty and good writing.
FLR: How do you think modern media would alter Lincoln’s approach to communication?
FK: Lincoln wasn’t photogenic and he wasn’t a particularly good speaker. I don’t think that it’s the media that makes the main difference. I think expectations do. If Lincoln were running for political office now, of course he’d have to make use of television and internet, etc. But perhaps he’d be genius enough to re-conceive how to use them in a way that would allow serious discussion of substantive issues. The problem now, though, is the electorate as well as the media. Perhaps we get the presidents we deserve, and sometimes we get lucky. We got lucky with Lincoln.
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