It is Kent Gramm’s first visit to Chautauqua, and already he is dispelling myths. Gramm, the prose writer in residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center for Week Three, will give a Brown Bag lecture titled “Perfect Tribute: Writing the Gettysburg Address” at 12:15 p.m. today on the porch of Alumni Hall.
The history of the Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches in American history, is bound to be tied up in fallacies. One particular story insists that Abraham Lincoln scribbled the address on the back of an envelope while on the train to Gettysburg, Pa. Gramm believes a speech scrawled at the last minute is not in Lincoln’s nature as a careful writer and a deep thinker.
“The myth is not a particularly happy one, but on the other hand there’s a certain element about it,” Gramm said. “It does preserve the idea that this moment and this speech and this president were all of unusual and exceptional importance.”
Unlike the majority of presidential or political speeches delivered today, the Gettysburg Address was penned entirely by Lincoln. Lincoln wrote almost all of his public addresses, with the exception of a suggestion taken every and now and then from a colleague such as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Gramm said.
Lincoln’s initial invitation asked him to deliver a speech of “few” and “appropriate” words at Gettysburg. He was asked to briefly introduce the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg. The main event, Gramm said, was a two-hour-long speech to be delivered by former U.S. Senator Edward Everett.
At the time, Lincoln’s speeches were often sprinkled with comedy and humorous — perhaps “inappropriate” — anecdotes. But he had no intention of cracking jokes at Gettysburg.
“The Gettysburg Address is a concentrated, almost hardened piece of work, where everything relates to everything else,” Gramm said, “and it has the economy, force and beauty of a poem. It is almost a prose poem.”
The Gettysburg Address is by no means a new topic for Gramm. Just last week he was involved in several events at Gettysburg College, where he is a professor of American literature, Civil War studies and creative writing.
The college’s Civil War Institute hosts an annual weeklong conference on various aspects of the war; this year’s conference celebrated the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Gramm gave a lecture on the Gettysburg Address, dedicated a new museum in a seminary-turned-hospital used during the war, and moderated a discussion on whether the novel The Killer Angels was necessary in understanding the Battle of Gettysburg.
None of Gramm’s ancestors were in the war, and he didn’t step foot on any of its battlefields until he was an adult. But he and his friends became interested in the Civil War at the age of 10, and it has stuck with him ever since.
“For a boy, it’s kind of a romantic, adventurous thing,” Gramm said. “The more you study about it the more you realize that it was an awful thing. And as you get older your strong interest becomes a vehicle of understanding life.”