Lincoln’s Voice

Click here to view the embedded video.

A trailer for the Lincoln movie, directed by Stephen Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which is being released on November 9th.  I will go see it and review it.  Heaven knows that I doubt that it could possibly be worse than Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  Capturing Lincoln on film is difficult.  He was a complex man who lived in complex times, and trying to say much of substance about him in a two hour film is probably a futile undertaking.

Some criticisms of the trailer have arisen, most centering on the objection that Lewis does not sound like Lewis.  Of course, since Lincoln died 22 years before the first primitive sound recordings we will never hear his voice.  We do have a number of contemporary accounts as to his voice.

Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him, but he soon recovered. –William H. Herndon letter, July 19, 1887

Other accounts emphasise Lincoln’s frontier Hoosier (Indiana) accent, his twang, and his pronunciation of certain words (Mr. “Cheerman”!)  I am familiar with the Hoosier accent, having grown up in Paris, Illinois on the Indiana border.  My relatives who did not attend college retain their Hoosier accents, and it is quite a striking accent, especially if one has not heard it before, which was certainly the case for most of those who heard Lincoln give speeches in the East.

I have always thought that Hal Holbrook, in his portrayal of Lincoln in the miniseries Sandburg’s Lincoln which was broadcast in 1974 and was recently released on DVD, came closest to sounding as Lincoln sounded.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Holbrook has Lincoln speak with a twang and a strong Hoosier accent, and I think that is how Lincoln sounded, although that is all speculation with our limited amount of evidence.

However, it is what Lincoln said, and not the voice that he used to say the words, which is important.  These words I believe are of special significance to America in 2012:

 The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.



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Donald R. McClarey (1546 Posts)

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