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Scoured or Skimmed?

Alan Jacobs claims to have “scoured” the pages of Shadowplay in a vain search for answers to its anomalies (“The Code Breakers,” August/September). Skimmed would be a more accurate word. Objecting to my suggestion that Merchant of Venice contains an invitation to the Queen to identify with the figure of Portia, he makes the point that Elizabeth remained single, whereas Portia marries.

Had he taken the trouble to read on, however, he would have learned that, in Elizabeth’s own terms, she did marry. Pressed by Parliament to choose a husband, she announced: “I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England, and that may suffice you . . . and so reproach me no more’ quoth she.”

Shadowplay highlights the wealth of contemporary allusion surrounding Portia’s espousal to Bassanio, designed to remind the Queen of her allegorical flirtation with England”and before Jacobs ridicules the idea of a lost level of meaning in which Bassanio represents Elizabeth’s subjects, a reviewer who professes to respect the “various forms and genres and techniques of literary writing” will be aware that poems and plays in the mid-sixteenth century regularly celebrated England’s courtship of the monarch, and that literary characters representing England were commonplace, though disguised in order to subvert the ban on discussing contemporary politics and religion.

The latest piece of research into the neglected area of covert political literature in early modern England, Greg Walker’s impressive Writing Under Tyranny , identifies the moment in 1534 when the humanist genre of “counsel to princes” was forced to adopt coded terms which, in my view, reached their most sophisticated form in the repressive 1590s.

There is no reason why Jacobs should not lampoon a book after a brief glance rather than dignifying it with a review, but it is a bit much to accompany the caricature with advice to the author on the virtues of close reading.

Clare Asquith
Mells, Somerset, England

Alan Jacobs replies:

I would encourage Clare Asquith to consider that there are several possible reasons why, in a brief essay that dealt with several books, I might not have noted a germane point about hers. For instance, I might have read her book quite carefully and nevertheless, in an attempt to survey a great deal of material, failed to note something significant”and in this case that is just what happened. (In other words, I am diligent-though-intellectually-limited rather than smart-yet-careless.)

The point is indeed relevant, though I think it weakens Asquith’s case rather than strengthens it. For, in the story Elizabeth tells, she was married to England at the moment of her accession, before any of her foreign suitors appeared, and this renders any substantive comparison to Portia’s choice among the three caskets difficult at best. (In the rest of her letter, Asquith simply reasserts her key claims without responding to the questions about evidence-handling that I and several other commentators have raised.)

But again, Asquith is absolutely right that I should have acknowledged her treatment of Elizabeth’s matrimonial rhetoric.

Lincoln Agonistes

James Nuechterlein’s review (“Lincoln Both Great and Good,” August/September) of three recent books on Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, was excellent and on the mark except for one significant point. He writes, “Lincoln was a great admirer of the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he had little patience for the Jeffersonian dream of America as a land of self-sufficient farmers.”

In fact, Lincoln had difficulty with the aristocratic Jefferson on many accounts, and in private he not only scorned Jefferson’s views of the ideal yeoman farmer but also condemned Jefferson’s hypocrisy regarding slaves, a hypocrisy that implied Jefferson’s use of the word equality in the Declaration need not be taken literally as applying to all men. To Jefferson, the self-evident truth of equality was an unearned gift of the Creator to the nation’s citizens that must be respected but that need not apply to slaves in bondage or to native savages.

Of course, our Founding Fathers argued over many things, but they especially disagreed on Jefferson’s meaning of equality as used in the Declaration. Following a period of “four-score and seven,” it took more than 600,000 deaths on the battlefield to straighten out the accepted definition. Lincoln, following the great battle at Gettysburg, powerfully delivered the final word, emphasizing that equality was actually a proposition established primarily by enormous sacrifice.

That the concept of equality is a proposition implies that it is not self-evident, one of the properties of the truths in Jefferson’s Declaration. Moreover, Jefferson’s truths come to humanity unearned from a Creator. (Jefferson originally had used the word sacred for these truths, but Franklin convinced him to use the less religious term self-evident.) Lincoln’s equality, on the other hand, was a hypothesis, one that if proven would be a significant corrective to the accepted meaning of the Declaration. This proposition of equality, based on the full strength of reason from the Enlightenment, was one that must be fought for and defended passionately with all the strength and wit one can muster in life.

Simply put: If you win equality, then freedom results (and not the other way around). In the West, our modern consumer society has now debased this concept to be the equality to buy and consume, to trade and to travel, to build up a life of toys and trinkets. But this does not diminish the original Enlightenment vision of Lincoln, one that significantly and permanently changed the meaning and impact of one of Jefferson’s self-evident truths. If “all men are created equal,” then Lincoln believed they were expected to earn that status, and the resulting freedom, in the eyes of Providence.

Daniel J. Biezad
San Luis Obispo, California

James Nuechterlein’s medley of reviews of the three new Lincoln studies is particularly artful in weaving together so much that we have come to know about the mature Lincoln who led the Union through the war years, as well as pointing out those areas in which Lincoln will perhaps always be clothed in mystery or contradiction.

Of particular importance in this regard, though little noted by historians or popular piety, are Nuechterlein’s telling observations on the Lincoln who prosecuted the war through to its conclusion despite its frightful costs”whatever the popular and, in some sense, real perception of Lincoln as tenderhearted.

It is perhaps well to remember that this Lincoln, who Nuechterlein reminds us mused over the implications of the awful arithmetic of Fredericksburg, was, before his apotheosis, hated by many in the North precisely for it and was known by many there as “the widow-maker.” Perhaps more to the point was his willingness to unleash relentless warfare on his secessionist opponents, who were, in Lincoln’s view, still fellow Americans, even if in rebellion. This is the president who late in the war pressed his munitions officers toward the creation of an ever more efficient repeating carbine to be used against rifle-carrying CS troops, and, more tellingly, the president who let loose Sherman on Georgia, Sheridan on the Shenandoah, and ratified the long contest and carnage of Grant’s 1864 summer campaign.

History has chosen to deal kindly with this warrior and to consider his motives”saving the Union and ending slavery”apt justification for these grinding costs. It has also chosen to remember the Second Inaugural’s “with malice toward none, with charity for all” as opposed to overmuch remembrance of the near-total war that made possible those healing words.

An interesting aside, not strictly related to either the studies reviewed or Nuechterlein’s piece itself, is whether we can see Lincoln’s conduct of the war as inaugurating a whole new U.S. doctrine of war, a doctrine that saw maturation in Wilson’s conduct of World War I and that come to fruition in Roosevelt’s and Truman’s conduct of the total war that was World War II, a doctrine that finds in a civilian population’s will to resist almost as legitimate a target as its military’s ability.

All of which is not to say that the war doctrine the United States adopted in World War II was anything other than justified given the frightful daily cost in Allied manpower, just that it had its first
American notes in the Lincolnian conduct of the Civil War.

Philip M. Niblack
Manchester, Missouri

Dylan Lives

Stephen H. Webb is right to debunk “the myth of Dylan as a man on the political and cultural left” (“It Ain’t Me, Babe,” August/September). Webb could have confirmed his thesis, which he largely bases on Dylan’s interviews, with Chronicles: Volume One , Dylan’s autobiography. There he says, “I really was never any more than what I was”a folk musician.” And by that he means a composer of folk tunes. “I was not a spokesman for anything or anybody . . . I was only a musician.” In his songs, the “triplet forms would fashion melodies at intervals. This is what would drive the song-not necessarily the lyrical content.”

Dylan clearly cares about musical sounds. So he writes, “Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it. I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese.” No wonder he admits toward the end of these memoirs, “My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.”

Dylan says one of his most important songs musically is “Man in the Long Black Coat,” off the 1989 album Oh Mercy. “In some kind of weird way,” he writes, “I thought of it as my ‘I Walk the Line,’ a song I’d always considered to be up there at the top, one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots . . . . Johnny Cash didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of a fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger. ‘I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.’ Indeed. I must have recited those lines to myself a million times. Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small, unusually low pitched”dark and booming, and he had the right band to match, the rippling rhythm and cadence of click-clack. Words that were the rule of law and backed by the power of God.”

Rev. Ronald F. Marshall
First Lutheran Church
of West Seattle
Seattle, Washington

Stephen H. Webb replies:

I couldn’t agree more”there’s so much that could still be said, which is why I’ve written Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved (Continuum, 2006). Your letter gives me hope that Dylan fans are ready for a new interpretation of his music.

Ars Poetica

May I respectfully call attention to a misquotation in your otherwise admirable “While We’re at It” in the August/September issue? What Hilaire Belloc actually wrote (originally in The Path to Rome , page 106 of the Doubleday-Image ed., 1956, later found in his collected poems, a copy of which I do not have at hand) was this:

But Catholic men that live upon wine
Are deep in the water, and frank, and fine;
Wherever I travel I find it so,
Benedicamus Domino.

I have no idea where the version you cite came from, though I have come across it before.

Patricia M. Godfrey
Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey

RJN replies:

I, too, have seen that version, plus another that combines the two. Perhaps a learned reader can clarify the matter?