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Luskin: The Power of Brevity

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Brevity is the soul of wit , according to Shakespeare – and it’s notoriously difficult to achieve, according to the French mathematician Pascal, who wrote, I would have been more brief had I more time. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared it was his ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.

Nietzsche wasn’t successful, but Abraham Lincoln was. His Gettysburg Address, which was delivered at the consecration of the National Cemetery 150 years ago, is only ten sentences long.

Lincoln’s was not the main speech of the day. That speech was delivered by Edward Everett, a man who had served in both houses of Congress, been Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain, Secretary of State, and President of Harvard. He was known as a great orator, and in the style of the mid-nineteenth century, he spoke for two hours.

Everett’s Gettysburg Address was 13,607 words. By contrast, Lincoln’s was only two hundred and sixty-six – about half the number in this essay. Lincoln’s brevity was unusual for his day. Nineteenth century literature ran long: Uncle Tom’s Cabin has more than 180,000 words; Moby-Dick more than 200 -thousand. For comparison, a novel these days usually runs less than a hundred thousand words, and this year’s Nobel Laureate is Alice Munro, a writer of short stories.

Lincoln spoke for about two minutes. Brief as the speech was, it has endured despite Lincoln’s own prediction that, The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.

For all its brevity, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is sonorous, elegant, and poetic. The first sentence compresses 87 years of American History and echoes the Declaration of Independence. The second sentence frames the issue of whether or not any nation based on equality can last. The third is the change-up, half the length of the previous two: We are met on a great battlefield of that war. Lincoln devotes two more sentences to the purpose of the day: consecrating a cemetery to those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. That’s five of the ten sentences, right there.

Despite its brevity, Lincoln uses repetition liberally: the word dedicate occurs six times; the word nation five; dead three; and devotion twice. But the word Lincoln employs most occurs eight times: here, meaning at this time, in this place, now .

Now – a hundred and fifty years since Lincoln delivered his famous address in Gettysburg – his words still resonate with purpose and hope, that this nation can have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.