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On Inaugural Addresses . . . and Revision

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While I am a fierce advocate for revision in all my classes, showing students over and over again how much good, strong revision can improve their writing—can even make it “sing”—I will admit that I HATE to revise. For me, the excitement of writing that first draft, of seeing my ideas take shape on the screen or the paper, pales when it comes to the tedium of looking at every word, every sentence, and trying to improve. I’d rather move on to the next exciting research or project, feeling that my draft should be good enough.

BUT IT NEVER IS. And so I bite the bullet and revise away, hating almost every minute of it. Still, when the job is done, I always know that the revising has been worth it, that it is necessary, absolutely necessary.

Ironically enough, I was working on revising a long essay when I ran across Jill Lepore’s “The Speech,” an article on presidential inaugural addresses that appeared on January 12, 2009. She writes that the president’s inaugural address wasn’t a given, wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution. But after his inauguration, George Washington went to Congress and delivered a speech, as did Jefferson in 1801. In 1817, James Monroe delivered his post-inauguration speech outdoors, but only because the Capitol was undergoing renovations. Slowly, however, the tradition of addressing not the Congress but the American people took hold, and by 1829, 20,000 people turned up to attend Andrew Jackson’s address.

Lepore passes judgment on a number of inaugural addresses, judging some much better, some much worse, but the most interesting part of the essay to me came in her discussion of revision, where she shows how even the best of inaugural address drafters were improved by revision, sometimes revision by someone else. Then she comes to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, the draft of which Lincoln turned over to William Seward for response. Seward, in turn, “scribbled out a new ending, offering an olive branch to seceding Southern States”:

I close. We are not, we must not, be aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation.

But then Lincoln took up his own revising pen, and wrote the passage that we remember, honor, and admire today:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln’s revision is masterful, his stylistic sense strong and sure, and his address has inspired many presidents since, including most notably Barack Obama. We know that Obama worked hard on revising both his first and second inaugurals, and many believe they will go down as among the most powerful in U.S. history, right alongside Lincoln’s. Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address was of a different nature—very brief, very dark, and very much aimed at his base rather than all Americans. Columnist George Will called it “the most dreadful inaugural address in history.”

I don’t have a good basis for comparison, but I can say that this was the least memorable inaugural address I can remember. In a recent essay, John McWhorter helps to explain why when he describes Trump’s inaugural address as more like casual talking and less like “speaking”:

The issue is talking versus “speaking,” a more crucial distinction than we have reason to think about until someone as linguistically unpolished as Trump brings talking into an arena usually reserved for at least an attempt at speaking. . . .

McWhorter goes on to point out that many capable and intelligent people talk the way Trump does in everyday discourse, or over a beer or two. But most public officials and leaders have tried to move up the linguistic ladder, creating more coherent and memorable and carefully crafted public speeches. McWhorter says we should have seen this coming (perhaps with George W. Bush and Sarah Palin), as social media-speak moved into the White House. So, he says in his article, we may need a new way of listening for this kind of talk.

I’m not so sure that a new way of listening will help very much. While I have been a strong advocate for the vernacular throughout my career, and indeed have posted about this issue on several occasions, what Trump is doing does not seem to me to represent a triumph for but rather a diminishment of vernacular English or “talk,” which can have a strong power and beauty of its own. So for me and many other teachers of writing, Trump’s inaugural address demonstrates the need not for a new way of listening but some good old-fashioned revision: perhaps he did seek and receive advice from his trusted advisers about a draft of his speech; perhaps he did revise. If so, all I can say is that more and better revision was called for.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.