Vera, your mom challenged me to come up with a list of books that influenced me. I’ve been thinking about it. Without success.
There are a few reasons. First, I’m not comfortable with lists. They exclude too much. Second, it’s hard to find a complete work that is exceptional, especially in contemporary literature. Too many potentially great essays become mediocre books. Third, writings that may have influenced me at an earlier stage of my life don’t mean as much to me today, and vice versa. Context matters. Fourth, many of the words that influenced me the most came in the form of letters and speeches, not books.
Yet I do want to share with you, Vera, some of the words that matter to me. And so I begin, in no particular order, with more to come in the months ahead.
I’m going to begin with words that were first shared with the world at a place that is special to me: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, not far from where I spent my childhood. When words and place join perfectly, as they do here, the words live longer. And carry more weight. Place matters.
Your dad’s been to this place more than once. We took him and your uncle there when they were kids. My parents once took me and my older brother there when we were kids, too. I’ll never forget that first visit.
Your dad and uncle had fun there, in this living history museum. But I suppose the main reason we returned so often was because I wanted to share with them something that was important to me. And to our country. And because the place was unique.
The Gettysburg fields have a voice. They speak softly yet profoundly — at least to those who are silent and listen.
The experience is not unlike my visit to the cemetery in Normandy, France, near the beaches where the D-Day invasion took place in World War II. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the world so quiet as it was when I stood at the Normandy cemetery.
Gettysburg is a sacred place, but one where boys can have fun climbing around Devil’s Den (here’s a photo of your dad there) or pretending what it must have been like on those three hot, sultry days in July 1783, when other boys congregated there. The complexity of life is captured at Gettysburg.
The town and hilltop where these words were spoken are surrounded by a bucolic countryside. But that’s not what draws multitudes there. What draws people is what occurred there. It was there General Lee and his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia engaged the Union Army in the most memorable, decisive battle of the Civil War. It was there much blood was shed. It was there the ground and streams turned red.
It was a place of unimaginable carnage. I’ll have more to say about that later. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I find suffering moving.
Gettysburg moves me. Lincoln moves me.
Four months after the guns were silenced, our president, Abraham Lincoln, went to Gettysburg to help dedicate a new cemetery, the eternal resting place for the remains of our slain soldiers. I once attended a funeral at this cemetery. A family friend had been killed in Vietnam. I can think of no better place for a fallen soldier to be laid to rest.
It was at this place, using a mere 272 words, Lincoln delivered a speech that will live forever. Indeed, the words speak to us today — if we care to listen, that is.
The words are ordinary. The ordering of them is extraordinary. Their message is profound.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We are met on a great battle-field of that war.
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.