"The Power to Hurt": Lincoln's Early Use of Satire and Invective

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How did Abraham Lincoln become a great speaker and writer? How did he get from doggerel in a copybook to the mastery of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the speeches of the presidential years? This is an abiding mystery in Lincoln biography, and its obscurity will probably never be dispelled fully.1Still, we cannot help wondering, and so we look for early signs of precocity and power in the boy "back home in Indiana" during the 1820s and the young man of the New Salem, Illinois, years from 1831 to 1837. We continue to search and speculate despite few and questionable sources and the itching temptation to historical backfilling. Because the mature Lincoln indubitably was a literary artist, he must have had an apprenticeship. Surely, we hope, the traces of the teenage boy's incipient rhetorical greatness have not entirely been obliterated from the folk memory of the Little Pigeon Creek settlement, while tales of the young man in Illinois might be expected to dramatize Lincoln as the verbal equivalent of a champion frontier wrestler. After all, tradition has made him the one, why not the other? In the West the sports were not that different: Both were forms of "deep play," violent, no-holds-barred, and basic to the male social pecking order—the more so in locales peopled largely by upland southerners.
Original languageAmerican English
JournalJournal of the Abraham Lincoln Association
StatePublished - 1995


  • Literature in English, North America

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