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Lincoln's Sense of Humor

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.
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About the Author

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 and was subsequently published in the United States as Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. 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.


"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 "Southern Illinois University Press's Concise Lincoln Library series, which will extend to approximately thirty volumes when completed, is an excellent series of compact books. The premise of the series is to give readers the opportunity to quickly engage at a sophisticated level with selected Lincoln topics by noted Lincoln scholars. I own all volumes and haven't been disappointed by a single one of them."--Tom Peet, author of Reading Lincoln

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