Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Lincoln's Voice

So what did Lincoln's voice sound like? This article explores that question for us as we have no actual recordings of it. Harold Holzer has researched this question for us:
“Lincoln’s voice, as far as period descriptions go, was a little shriller, a little higher,” says Holzer. It would be a mistake to say that his voice was squeaky though. “People said that his voice carried into crowds beautifully. Just because the tone was high doesn’t mean it wasn’t far-reaching,” he says.

When Holzer was researching his 2004 book Lincoln at Cooper Union, he noticed an interesting consistency in the accounts of those who attended Lincoln’s speaking tour in February and March 1860. “They all seem to say, for the first ten minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured,” says Holzer. “I am paraphrasing, but there is ten minutes of saying, what the heck is that, and then all of a sudden it’s the ideas that supersede whatever flaws there are.” Lincoln’s voice needed a little time to warm up, and Holzer refers to this ten-minute mark as the “magical moment when the voice fell into gear.”

...Lincoln’s accent was a blend of Indiana and Kentucky. “It was hard to know whether it was more Hoosier or blue grass,” says Holzer. The way he spelled words, such as “inaugural” as “inaugerel,” gives some clue as to how he pronounced them.

Despite his twang, Lincoln was “no country bumpkin,” Holzer clarifies. “This was a man who committed to memory and recited Shakespearean soliloquies aloud. He knew how to move into King’s English. He could do Scottish accents because he loved Robert Burns. He was a voracious reader and a lover of poetry and cadence. When he writes something like the Second Inaugural, you see the use of alliteration and triplets. ‘Of the people, by the people and for the people’ is the most famous example,” he says. “This was a person who truly understood not only the art of writing but also the art of speaking. People should remember that, though we have no accurate memorial of his voice, this is a man who wrote to be heard. Only parenthetically did he write to be read.”

Sam Waterston, who played Lincoln several times, researched his voice and Holzer says it does it best:
Of the actors who have played Lincoln, “Waterston catches it for me,” says Holzer. “Although he is from Massachusetts, he gets that twang down, and he’s got a high voice that sometimes lapses into very high.”

William Herndon reported that Lincoln also wasn't a gesturer or a roamer when he spoke.

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