Gettysburg Address

As 19th century oratory, the Gettysburg Address was a failure. Lincoln himself said so as the weak and scattered applause subsided. But when printed on the front page of papers all across the North, it was a gem. Perfect. Poetic. Memorized and recited by everyone from politicians to preachers to schoolchildren to soldiers. It still is.

Lincoln read scores, perhaps even hundreds, of telegrams everyday. Indeed, his campaign in 1860 was the first American presidential campaign essentially run by wire, and the Civil War he found himself leading was the first war run by telegrams too. Lincoln composed wires all day long that were sent to military and administrative and political leaders across the span of the continent. A telegram’s prose, compared with handwritten letters, was spare and urgent, the rhythms terse and staccato, the words in the dozens, a couple hundred at most. Points were made succinctly, a series of quick images and at their best they squeezed ten thousand words into a hundred. Lincoln experimented with these new composition ideas as the presidential train rolled towards Gettysburg, you can see it in the drafts. He’s trying to say as much as possible in as little as possible. When he took the podium it was a couple months after the battle, the smell of death still emanating from the thousands of graves. Four score and seven years ago, he began, ending it 272 words later with shall not perish from the earth. It was short, to the point, and disappointing to most of those in attendance. Stem winding speeches were an afternoon’s entertainment in that era. But to those who were not in the audience and would read and not hear his words, Lincoln had changed American literature forever. Maybe no one realized it then. But in England the kids memorized Shakespeare, but here they memorized the Gettysburg Address.

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Accidental Death and Dismemberment

Just looking at the dismemberment breakdown in my Accidental Death and Dismemberment policy. It’s not the kind of thing I read everyday, but still, it’s kind of entertaining in a grisly way. Losing an arm, say, or a leg is good money. Losing both is better money. Even better if the arm and leg are on different sides of the body. I remember reading in a book about the Civil War that  General John Bell Hood lost an arm on one side, a leg on the other. They had to strap him to his horse. That always seemed kind of pathetic for a big, tough Texan like John Bell Hood. I also read somewhere that he died after the war in one of those yellow fever epidemics New Orleans was notorious for. That would have been worth less money, dying from yellow fever, than losing that arm and that leg. But of course he lost that arm and that leg in a battle, well, two battles. Hood always liked to be in the thick of things. But his Accidental Death and Dismemberment policy would not have covered either amputation. Gotta read the fine print…no wars.* He should have thought about that before galloping like a fool headlong into the fray. He had to rely on veterans benefits, if they had those back then. Well they did, or would have, except he was on the losing side. No veterans benefits for them. They lost their country, their peculiar institution, and their veterans benefits. All they had left was Dixie, and you can whistle that till the cows come home and you ain’t gonna get a penny. Look before you leap, I say.

Those Accidental Death and Dismember plans–AD&D in the trade–really get into the details. You make a few bucks losing a finger or two. A thumb is a bit better, losing a hand better still. Same goes for toes and a foot. But those are still chicken feed compared to having the whole arm or leg lopped off. Losing both really does cost the insurance company an arm and a leg. They must hate that. The rep would be in the operating room, if he could, trying to sew the things back on.

The policy gets a little weird above the neck. Loss of speech, hearing, vision and maybe even smell are covered. You lose just one eye or one ear you earn some pocket change. If you lose one ear and one eye–one of those how the hell did I do that things–you get a better deal. They list all these in the policy, and all the other body parts, with the pay out for each. They run down the page in declining value. Dying is winning the Super Lotto, of course, the big wazoo of AD&D. That first D is what you aim for if considering your prospects in an accident from a strictly financial point of view. The arm/leg thing comes next, then an arm or a leg all the way down to a measly finger. You look at your finger and realize how little it’s worth. It wiggles back, showing you what it can do.

OK, this essay is getting under my skin. And that skin isn’t worth anything, insurance wise. So I’ll stop right here and leave you, dear reader, free to go watch Dexter. Personally I can’t watch Dexter. I find it disturbing and disgusting and wonder what is wrong with all you people. Then again, Dexter the serial killer is giving his victims the big wazoo, insurance wise. I doubt they’d appreciate that, however. Besides, they’re all bad guys and bad guys never have life insurance, so never mind.

 

* Actually John Bell Hood would have known all this too well, since he was the president of a life insurance company after the war. Imagine that. The company was ruined by the yellow fever epidemic that killed him. Killed him, his wife, a kid or two, and left a mess of orphans. Ironic now, tragic then.

 

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Hubris

(2009)

“For Americans who do not compare their big, homegrown war enough with those on other continents, this can be instructive. After showing Ken Burns’ film series on the Civil War to a class of German undergraduates, I was once confronted by a student who wanted to know “why are there so many moon rises and sun sets in this film, and why do you Americans always think that everything that happens to you is the biggest thing in history? Do Americans understand the scale of bloodshed and social destruction of the Thirty Years’ War?” To which I could only reply, “No, most have never heard of it.”

David Blight, “America’s Armageddon Revisited” Slate (2009)

You have to feel for the German kid. I’ve been reading a great deal of pre-Great War European history lately (indeed, just finished the Vertigo Years last nite) and I must say that in those precious times between the French Revolution and 1914 Europeans too knew that everything that had ever happened to them was the greatest thing in history. It was certainly up there. It was Europe’s time, and when it’s your time in world history then everything you do is the greatest thing ever. But to paraphrase Gibbon, they done fucked up. And then everything falls into perspective from the ruins of empire. You look around the colossal ruins, see what you had, what you could have had, wipe away a tear and sigh. It all falls into place. Hell, the Thirty Years War wasn’t even a “good war”. It was just a huge awful endless slaughtering destructive mess for no good reason whatsoever. It ruined Germany, gutted it, stripped it bare. And for what? But then the Germans haven’t had a lot of good wars since they stopped the Turks. Wars had a bad tendency to work themselves across central Europe laying waste the land. And the Germans sure splattered a lot of Europe in bad wars. Three generations of European kids since then have to deal with that. And that their own grandfathers, great grandfathers back through their great great great great great grandfathers from one end of Europe to the other had taken the civilization of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and fought war after ghastly war, slaughtering and butchering and torturing and destroying. Spaniards and Russians, Swedes and Italians, and almost everyone between, they all pitched in at one time or another. The Germans, in the middle, took it for centuries. Then in 1914 they decided it was their turn. Three decades later it was all over but the cleaning up.  Muscovy ruled one half, the Americans propped up the other. Empires frittered away to scattered islands. To think that fifty years earlier Europe ruled the world.

And then you go and show their progeny Ken Burn’s Civil War. They sigh. You Americans are so dumb. Can’t you see we did all that before, over and over. Can’t you see we failed? Had to fail? Can’t you starry eyed, moonstruck, smiling with the dawn Yanks get it through your head that you are as doomed as we were?

Well, no we can’t. Hell, even I can only accept that notion as an abstraction. When I watch The Civil War I too see the moonlit battlefields, the dawns of Juneteenth mornings, Abe Lincoln as a homespun Marcus Aurelius. It’s just innate. We can’t help ourselves. But we all know, us bookish types, that those world weary European kids are right, and we’ll be there someday sooner or later, looking at the world over the sad remains of American civilization. Some Chinese professor will be showing the 18 part epic poem of the Taiping Rebellion to a college class in far away Michigan and an outraged kid will splutter that you Chinese always think everything that happens to you is the most important thing ever. He’d say more, too, but his Mandarin fails him.