Walt Whitman, Parenting Books and Other Letters to the Editor

True to Word

To the Editor:

So who knew? Until reading Dwight Garner’s essay “Mark My Words” (Nov. 8), I’d never heard of a commonplace book. Yet here I am with two standard-size journals (one leather-bound!) plus a folder stowed away in my computer chock-full of quotes and passages, pithy, humorous, dark, shrieking and subtle words gleaned from all sorts of sources (including my own best lines).

Amazing, isn’t it, how something commonplace is elevated by the addition of a distinguished title? To top it all off, the journal entries are written with a fountain pen (I’m a fan). Well! I’m feeling mighty good. Thanks so much!

Elizabeth G. Moisan
Harwich, Mass.

To the Editor:

After scribbling favorite sentences from texts on an assortment of paper scraps over the years and filing them in a makeshift folder, I was delighted to discover that there was both a name and a better repository for my collection — a “commonplace book.”

Additionally, Dwight Garner provided a new favorite for my file, while describing another author’s novels: “They were bird’s nests of facts threaded with the author’s own subtle interjections.”

Marialis Seehorn
Sunnyvale, Calif.

To the Editor:

I love Garner’s notion of a “commonplace book,” a gathering of noteworthy excerpts from one’s reading. I hope that he has discovered the wonderful “Suppose a Sentence,” by Brian Dillon, a collection of essays on 27 of Dillon’s favorite sentences from literature.

I always look forward to Garner’s reviews. My favorite of his is an assessment of three parenting books, one of which he said made him feel as if the author were “reaching up from the text to slap me across the face” every time he turned a page. It was the perfect description of reading any book in that category. His fellow parents know the feeling.

I read my paper early. How nice it was to be laughing out loud by 8 in the morning.

Margaret McGirr
Greenwich, Conn.

To the Editor:

I am sure I am not the only one who noticed this sentence in Garner’s last paragraph: “Writing in the April 1904 issue of The Atlantic, Walt Whitman declared … ” I knew that this was an impossibility since Whitman died in 1892. I checked the April 1904 issue of The Atlantic and found an essay by Walt Whitman that the magazine had published.

Titled “An American Primer,” it was written by Whitman earlier in his life, and the magazine included it in its 1904 issue. So Garner is partially correct: The quotation he includes was written by Whitman but not in 1904, so Whitman was not “writing” then. Perhaps if Garner had instead said “included in The Atlantic’s April 1904 issue, an essay, written by Walt Whitman during his lifetime …” that would have been more accurate.

I loved the essay and plan to buy Garner’s book since I, too, love quotations.

Maryanne Garbowsky
Westfield, N.J.

Few Good Men

To the Editor:

In his generally astute review of the cultural historian David S. Reynolds’s massive biography of Abraham Lincoln (Nov. 15), Robert W. Merry got it mostly right. But he was simply wrong about the book’s important discussion of the connection between the still-controversial Connecticut-born revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, who tried to incite a slave rebellion in western Virginia in 1859, and Lincoln.

To Merry, Brown was “a murderer, a traitor and a madman.” In contrast, Reynolds knows Brown’s extremism eventually inspired Lincoln to issue the final Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Much happened in these years, and the pragmatic Lincoln adapted with changing times. In 1860, while campaigning for the Republican nomination for president, Lincoln spoke at Cooper Union in New York City and distanced himself and his party from Brown. Less than three years later, under vastly different circumstances, Lincoln effectively adopted Brown’s approach to abolitionism (as Reynolds clearly notes) in the famous proclamation, which, among other things, encouraged the Union to arm nearly 200,000 African-Americans, mostly former slaves. That was Lincoln’s genius!

Lincoln was not saintly; no wartime leader can be. Merry needed to understand this to appreciate Lincoln’s greatness.

Steven S. Berizzi
Norwalk, Conn.

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