Here’s one of my historical pet peeves. The next time you’re watching a movie or documentary about Lincoln, pay attention to the reconstruction of his speaking voice. Filmmakers and producers rarely get this right.
If you read accounts by people who knew Lincoln, you’ll find that the one word used more than any other to describe his voice is “shrill.” Tell that to all the voice-over artists who’ve subjected us to Walter-Cronkite-doing-Lincoln over the years.
And then, of course, there’s the matter of dialect and pronunciation. Diarist George Templeton Strong was present when Lincoln shared one of his humorous anecdotes during a conversation about slavery. This is how he reconstructed it:
‘Wa-al,’ says Abe Lincoln, ‘that reminds me of a party of Methodist parsons that was travelling in Illinois when I was a boy thar and had a branch to cross that was pretty bad—ugly to cross, ye know, because the water was up. And they got considerin’ and discussin’ how they should git across it, and they talked about for two hours, and one on ’em thought they had ought to cross one way when they got there, and another another way, and they got quarrellin’ about it, till at last an old brother put in, and he says, says he, “Brethren, this here talk ain’t no use. I never cross a river until I come to it.”‘¹
I’ve never understood why so many film portrayals fumble this. Maybe it’s just simple ignorance. If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t expect the figure gazing down from the throne in the Lincoln Memorial to blurt out “git across it.” Or maybe, when we read all those written words that have become our national scripture, we’re uncomfortable with the notion of their author being an unpolished backwoodsman. (Nothing screams “ignoramus” to us modern-day Americans like a pronounced regional dialect, us being the shallow and vain creatures that we are.)
Enough with the newscaster Lincolns. Show us the backwoods Kentuckian, the one with the first-grade education, whose sagacity and eloquence rivaled that of every White House occupant before or since.
(Lincoln photo from Wikimedia Commons.)
¹George Templeton Strong, Diary of the Civil War, 1860-1865, ed. Allan Nevins (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), 204-05.