Professors Take on Gettysburg Address

By Margaret Cipriano '15
November 8, 2013

One hundred and fifty years ago, it only took President Abraham Lincoln 272 words to make a historic attempt to unify a divided nation.

This year, Caterpillar Professor of English and Illinois Poet Laureate Dr. Kevin Stein and Associate Professor and Department Chair of Sociology Dr. Jacqueline Hogan were asked to write pieces that reflected the Gettysburg Address in the 150th anniversary of the famous speech.  The speech and commemorative responses will be displayed at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield throughout November.

Dr. Stein noted the importance of the Gettysburg Address as he endeavored to write his own piece.

“Lincoln's Gettysburg Address sanctifies both those who gave their lives to redeem the American experiment and the ground upon which they gave their ‘last full measure of devotion,’” he said.

In writing her reflection to commemorate “one of the most eloquent, most moving, and most recognizable speeches in American political history,” Dr. Hogan noted that her own piece “made me admire Lincoln’s address all the more.”

The act of writing a commemorative reflection also inspired the analysis of address for Dr. Stein.

“What fascinates me is this: In Lincoln's 272 words, he repeats the word "here" seven times,” Stein said. “Reading the address aloud, one notes Lincoln's compulsion to mark that hallowed ground in a manner that also elevates the idea of American nationhood, this ‘here’ then both local and national.”

For both professors, the assignment was illuminating.

“Restricting my response to 272 words mirrors the formal constraints of many fixed poetic forms,” said Dr. Stein. “Those forms' rules become a kind of vessel into which one pours one's fresh poem—one's imagination paradoxically girded and emancipated by the process.”

“I think Lincoln’s words are particularly significant today as we become more and more divided as a nation,” said Dr. Hogan. “Lincoln’s words remind us of the terrible cost of division, but also hold the promise of a more unified future.” 

After reading and re-reading Lincoln’s address, Dr. Hogan decided to conclude her piece with this: “How do we mark this day? With words of praise and moments of silent reflection, yes. But who will take to the stage, as Lincoln did, to remind us that the struggle is not yet over? When the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day, when the rights and well-being of the most vulnerable are neglected, when social justice is an abstraction and equality a receding dream, we must recognize that while many battles have been fought and won, the struggle for justice and equality remains our solemn duty.”