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Lincoln's Sense of Humor

Lincoln's Sense of Humor

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Richard Carwardine

$16.95

E-book (Other formats: Paperback)
978-0-8093-3615-9
10 illustrations
11/02/2017

Concise Lincoln Library

 

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About the Book

Winner, Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Prize, 2018
Winner, ISHS Annual Award for a Scholarly Publication, 2018

Abraham Lincoln was the first president to make storytelling, jokes, and laughter tools of the office, and his natural sense of humor has become legendary. Lincoln’s Sense of Humor registers the variety, complexity of purpose, and ethical dimension of Lincoln’s humor and pinpoints the political risks Lincoln ran in telling jokes while the nation was engaged in a bloody struggle for existence.
 
Complete with amusing anecdotes, this book shows how Lincoln’s uses of humor evolved as he matured and explores its versatility, range of expressions, and multiple sources: western tall tales, morality stories, bawdy jokes, linguistic tricks, absurdities, political satire, and sharp wit. While Lincoln excelled at self-mockery, nothing gave him greater pleasure than satirical work lampooning hypocrisy and ethical double standards. He particularly enjoyed David R. Locke’s satiric writings by Petroleum V. Nasby, a fictional bigoted secessionist preacher, and the book explores the nuances of Lincoln’s enthusiasm for what he called Locke’s genius, showing the moral springs of Lincoln’s humor.
 
Richard Carwardine methodically demonstrates that Lincoln’s funny stories were the means of securing political or personal advantage, sometimes by frontal assault on opponents but more often by depiction through parable, obfuscation through hilarity, refusal through wit, and diversion through cunning. Throughout his life Lincoln worked to develop the humorist’s craft and hone the art of storytelling. His jokes were valuable in advancing his careers as politician and lawyer and in navigating his course during a storm-tossed presidency. His merriness, however, coexisted with self-absorbed contemplation and melancholy. Humor was his lifeline; dark levity acted as a tonic, giving Lincoln strength to tackle the severe challenges he faced. At the same time, a reputation for unrestrained, uncontrollable humor gave welcome ammunition to his political foes. In fact, Lincoln’s jocularity elicited waves of criticism during his presidency. He was dismissed as a “smutty joker,” a “first rate second rate man,” and a “joke incarnated.”
 
Since his death, Lincoln’s anecdotes and jokes have become detached from the context that had given them their political and cultural bite, losing much of the ironic and satiric meaning that he had intended. With incisive analysis and laugh-inducing examples, Carwardine helps to recapture a strong component of Lincoln’s character and reanimates the good humor of our sixteenth president.

Authors/Editors

Richard Carwardine is a professor emeritus at Oxford University, where he served as Rhodes Professor of American History from 2002 to 2009 and as president of Corpus Christi College from 2010 to 2016. His analytical biography Lincoln won the Lincoln Prize in 2004. His other work includes Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America, 1790–1865; Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America; and (with Jay Sexton) The Global Lincoln.
 

Reviews

"Lincoln’s exceptional memory and clear fascination with the human experience provided him with a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of jokes and humorous stories. When paired with his belief in fairness and remarkable ability to pick out a cogent lesson from seemingly any situation, they became his most valuable rhetorical tools. Indeed, one leaves this book suspecting they were also the most appealing part of any encounter with Lincoln. Thus, Richard Carwardine is to be commended for this highly accessible book that adds a new layer to Abraham Lincoln’s political genius, while also making him come alive for us just a little bit more."—Christian McWhirter, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, in American Nineteenth Century History

   “In a world where volumes have been written on the subject of each of Lincoln's speeches, all of his limbs, and even his favorite meals, it seems there's also room for a more nuanced exploration of this critical aspect of Lincoln's personality. Luckily, Richard Carwardine is on the case in Lincoln's Sense of Humor, a book from the Concise Lincoln Library that I would call necessary, important, and strangely practical. . . .
     In the course of anatomizing Lincoln's humor, Carwardine has managed to write a vital manual for anyone intending to use humor in politics. This is guidance a surprising number of people have clamored for. . . . Carwardine addresses some vital questions about political humor. When is humor appropriate for achieving a political goal? When is it inappropriate? How far is too far to go in using humor against your opponents? What kind of humor will communicate your message rather than muddying it? What kind of humor will be understood by the people you're addressing? These were questions that Lincoln grappled with, and Carwardine touches on all of them. . . .
     These are subjects I've never seen handled quite so clearly. Carwardine could have easily slapped a self-help subtitle on the cover (something like Ageless Lessons in Humorous Communication from the Great Emancipator), added bullet points to the ends of chapters and sold it as a handbook at public speaking and motivation conferences.  The world could certainly use an education in what Carwardine identifies as the central root of Lincoln's humor: a moral outrage against hypocrisy and irrational thought and action.” —Elliott Kalan, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

"Reading this book is a reminder of how gifted historians stitch together the remnants of a lost past to deepen our understanding of the human condition. It is a little gem carved by the hand of a master."—Professor Graham Peck,Reviews in History

"In the years after his death (while enjoying a comic farce), the protectors of Lincoln's legacy—including those who had so fully appreciated his use of levity during his life—worked to obscure the range and complexity of his humor in the interest of crystalizing the pantheonic Lincoln, the serious-minded savior of the Union. Carwardine has skillfully re-illuminated as full a sense of it as can be gleaned short of sharing an afternoon with Lincoln or hearing him on the stump. This is a slim but satisfying study, one that general readers will find enlightening and scholars of the presidency and humor will find most valuable."—Peter M. Robinson, Mount St. Joseph University

“Ridiculed by political enemies and unappreciated by many allies, Lincoln's sense of humor and bountiful fund of funny stories get a fresh and trenchant analysis in this important study. Richard Carwardine shows how Lincoln’s anecdotes not only served a therapeutic function to counter his melancholy but also helped him drive home important points of policy and strategy.”—James McPherson, author of The War That Shaped a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters

“Carwardine interprets Lincoln’s propensity for the jocular, especially his use of self-effacing stories, as an essential part of his humanity, a means of dealing with life’s ups and downs. Readers will welcome Carwardine’s analysis of the richness of Lincoln’s frivolity, which adds significance to our understanding of the man, the president, and the legend.”—John David Smith, author of Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops

“This is an important book. Richard Carwardine’s study performs the impressive feat of adding new elements and dimensions to our understanding of Lincoln’s fabled sense of humor and its significance in his career.”—Douglas L. Wilson, author of Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words 

"Richard Carwardine does an excellent job of placing Lincoln's humor in the context of the 19th Century thought and usage. He forcefully argues that when Lincoln, the man, is romanticized and ennobled, much of the original and authentic richness of his humor and satire is lost. This volume is his attempt to understand Lincoln's use of anecdotes, jokes, and satire n the context in which they occurred. This book both succeeds and deserves a place on any Lincoln collector's bookshelf."—Wayne Wolf, professor emeritus, South Suburban College 

"Before you groan (“Not another Lincoln book!”), let me assure you that this compact volume by a leading Lincoln scholar is both illuminating and very funny, containing as it does many instances of our greatest president’s humor, in many different registers, from coarse jests to the driest wit."—John Wilson, Christianity Today

"Sorting through the complexities of Lincoln’s humor is where Carwardine excels. One of the ways he does this is by showing how Lincoln’s sense of humor evolved over time and relative to the case before a jury, the opportunity for political advancement, or the gravity of the nation’s existential crisis."—Timothy D. Lusch, The University Bookman 

“Lincoln’s use of jokes and stories is legendary. Not everyone appreciated Lincoln’s humor. . . But Carwardine points out that Lincoln’s intrinsic humor was that of a humanitarian and helped contribute to turn his stature as president into statesmanship. There are many other volumes on Lincoln’s humor. . . but this is the best succinct version from one of the finest volumes in the Concise Lincoln Library of Southern Illinois University Press.”—Civil War Book Review