Inquiring Minds: Commemorating the Gettysburg Address with Author Jonathan Hennessey

Photo by David Shoenfelt

Photo by David Shoenfelt

A 10-year veteran of the film and television production industry, Jonathan Hennessey is a Los Angeles-based writer. Hennessey is the author of “The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation,” on which he collaborated with illustrator Aaron McConnell. In their newest work, “The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation,” the duo commemorate the 150th anniversary of this pivotal battle of the Civil War and use Lincoln’s address to tell the whole story of the war.

Q: Tell us about your book, “The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation.” What inspired you to write about Abraham Lincoln’s seminal speech and the Civil War?

Please, let me start by thanking the Library of Congress for the opportunity to talk about this project. The sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address is a too-good-to-pass-up opportunity to take a look back at American history, to contemplate what we’ve been as a nation and still might be. So it’s thrilling to have my collaboration with Aaron McConnell be even a small part of the discussion.

“The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation” is an experimental use of the comic book of graphic novel format for nonfiction storytelling. It’s a way to experience the whole sweep of Civil War history both through Lincoln’s carefully crafted words and through the power of visual art.

Brilliant scholarly works have been written that analyze the Gettysburg Address. There are books and papers that even break it down almost line-by-line. This graphic adaptation very much does that as well, because to understand and appreciate the speech, it’s crucial to get at the deep levels of meaning in nearly every one of its phrases. Sometimes there is even a tremendous amount of significance to Lincoln’s individual word choices.

But what this book does is divide the whole speech into 17 chronological sections. And it then uses those sections to retell the story of the Civil War — from “Four Score and Seven Years Ago,” that is, from 1776 — to the present. Lincoln intentionally wrote the Gettysburg Address with an elegant past-present-future structure. So we have taken Lincoln’s inspiring chronological cue one big leap forward. We use the speech to examine parts of the Civil War’s legacy that Lincoln himself never lived to see. With this method, we begin the book in colonial times, carry the narrative through the Secession Crisis, recap the entire war and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular, and continue through the Reconstruction Era to Civil Rights and beyond.

For me, this book organically grew out of our previous collaboration, which was to create a graphic novel edition of the entire U.S. Constitution. As a lifelong student of American history, I had thought I’d had an appropriate working knowledge of the institution of slavery’s role in the development of our country. But researching the Constitution’s formative debates and the times of the early republic utterly changed my mind. It had never been made plain to me before how slavery affected our form of government at so many consequent levels — even impinging on the shape of many states themselves. Slavery even helps explain why we have an Electoral College and a bicameral Congress.

I did not feel it was the place of the Constitution project to examine this quite so thoroughly, so I wanted a follow-up work to go in that direction.

Just as importantly, though, I think there are pressing contemporary issues that arise from the same sources of conflict that underpinned the Civil War. Besides the need to settle the issue of slavery, the Civil War was also caused by pervasive disagreements about what the United States “is” — and the question of what is the proper scope and mission of the federal government. I don’t think we’re moving towards another Civil War. But I do think we’re moving towards a potentially large-scale, consequential reckoning on those two other issues. And I believe Lincoln’s vision of the Union can significantly influence that dispute.

Q: Why use the medium of the graphic novel?

Most of us primarily experience the world through our vision. That is one reason why there’s a lot of truth to the old platitude, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Storytelling with pictures, as many comics writers will remind you, is an ancient art form that vastly predates words alone. Think of cave paintings, hieroglyphics, medieval tapestries, and even graphic-based languages. I think that lends the graphic novel reading experience certain immediacy. We relate to the material intuitively. We read text and at the same time we consciously and subconsciously work out the meaning of a mother lode of details in the picture itself. These might involve a character’s facial expression, what that character might be wearing, nuances of body language, how the composition is framed or cropped, how large or small the panel is, what surrounds it, how the image is colored, and so on. All this gives the material a high degree of impact. It gives your imagination and critical thinking skills a vigorous workout. I think it even makes the ideas and/or story being expressed more memorable.

One of the great strengths of the graphic-novel medium is that you can convey so many ideas so compactly. When done well, there is an alchemy of the pictures and words working together. There is a complex interplay of images, text and time — by this I mean the implied forward pace you get when your reading experience flows from panel to panel. The words and pictures are capable of adding up to much more than the sum of their parts.

This book jumps around in time and place quite a bit. We are picturing the Americas of the Age of Exploration in one chapter, the 1850s in another, and the 1960s still later. The art tracks along with the story’s multiple time frames. This, I like to think, gives the illustrations a great deal of diversity and range — and helps the reader imagine different places and different times.

The graphic medium also lets us do things we would never be able to do well using the written word alone. As one example, we are able to take occasional intermissions between sections of drier, historical material. In these instances we bring the reader a variety of short, dramatic vignettes: Lincoln receiving his first news about the Battle of Gettysburg in the telegraph office of the old War Department Building, a Massachusetts woman finding the body of her Union soldier husband months after he was killed, a sensitive Confederate infantryman trying in vain to help a wounded officer. If we were telling these vignettes with straight-up prose alone, they would require all manner of written description and exposition to even get going. And they might seem out of place or cheesy. As another example, we were also able to make the book — in part — a kind of guided walking tour of Washington, D.C. An unnamed character travels on foot from the Lincoln Memorial, to the National Archives, to the Newseum, to the Jefferson Memorial, to the African America Civil War Memorial and so on. We never know exactly what this character is pondering or feeling. And so she becomes a kind of Rorschach Test for our own feelings about the Civil War and race relations in the United States. This would be a huge challenge to pull off elegantly working with words by themselves.

Q: How does your book reflect Lincoln’s speech and the surrounding events differently then other books out there on the same subject(s)? Does it give a different perspective and/or insight?

As I mentioned earlier, there are already great books about the Gettysburg Address already on the shelf. The works of Gary Wills and Gabor Borritt, for example, were definitely big influences to me.

But I don’t believe any previous publication has ever used the speech’s intrinsic chronology to retell the whole Civil War. And so maybe other books weren’t as well positioned to present the Civil War in the context of the far bigger picture of American history. For instance, other books on the subject didn’t quite give themselves the same opportunity to examine Reconstruction and the 20th century through the lens of the Gettysburg Address. Our approach does that.

Our story also pays very close attention to the politics of the day: specifically about Lincoln’s need to deal with some highly unflattering rumors about the way he had conducted himself at a visit to the Antietam/Sharpsburg Battlefield in 1862. So I like to think that we tell a less idealistic and less naïve version of how the Gettysburg Address came to be — and how it came to be remembered as so important.

One thing that I think many will find provocative in the book is the idea that after the Civil War there were two “New Births of Freedom” for Americans, segregated by race, and no less than a century apart. Many other authors and readers are content to end the story on the high note of slavery’s being permanently vanquished. But Lincoln himself, for all the lofty rhetoric, tragically had no plan for the emancipated slaves. Consequently, African Americans were left with a “freedom” that in important ways was only on paper.

Q: What are the challenges and benefits of presenting such history in context using the graphic novel?

Well, there is a very real challenge that comes with a commitment to be as historically accurate as possible. This book deals almost exclusively with actual, documented people rather than abstractions or fictional characters. So their likenesses have to be chased down and honored by my artist. This is easy for folks like Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee but involve a lot more “boot leather” for lower-ranking military officers and politicians. We also have to be constantly on the lookout to be portraying appropriate period dress and firearms, and for architectural details like the U.S. Capitol dome’s being refurbished and the Washington Monument sitting unfinished like it did during the Civil War. As it turns out, a lot of state capitals have had multiple capitol buildings burn down or be demolished, and it took some work to make sure we were always depicting the right building. But when you work to get these things right — and I hope we did, we haven’t been called on anything yet — I think being a stickler for accuracy is a great aid to piquing the reader’s imagination and giving her as immersive an experience as possible.

Q: Tell me about your research in writing the book. Did you make any new discoveries about Lincoln, Gettysburg and/or the Civil War?

Research involved the obvious — a lot of reading, in a lot of different institutions, and standing on the shoulders of so many different scholars. It involved a fair amount of travel too. Aaron and I went in person to the National Battlefield and to Washington in 2009 in preparation for the book: neither of us had been to Gettysburg before, and it was a moving and humbling experience.

New discoveries about Lincoln and the Civil War are not a dime a dozen these days. When they come, they usually involve a stupefying amount of time and data collection and/or a wondrous instance of luck, like coming across a sheaf of letters in an attic. New discoveries also tend to shed light on somewhat finer points of history, or figure in the lives of less principle players in the Civil War. So that kind of exhaustive, academic grindwork was beyond the scope of this project. As someone who writes popular history works, I can only aspire to the level of training and intense degrees of specialization professional historians are out there working with every day.

I do think the book makes a couple of innovative and hopefully interesting arguments, though. There are still people who insist the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, and more to do with states’ rights. But if that’s the case, then arguably when it came to enforcing Civil Rights legislation in the South, the “heavy-handed” acts of the federal government should have sparked a serious secession crisis of its own, or perhaps even Civil War.

Q: In addition, you’ve written “The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation.” Why use pivotal moments in American history as subject matter? Do you feel they lend themselves to this genre?

I actually don’t think that either the Constitution or the Gettysburg Address transfer to graphic novels with particular ease. But I love trying to work those problems out and struggling to creatively rise to the occasion. As subjects for graphic adaptations, these documents come prepackaged with all sorts of conceptual challenges. With the Constitution — how, for starters, do you graphically represent ideas as abstract as federalism, popular sovereignty or the judicial branch? With the Gettysburg Address — how, for starters, can you take a 272-word speech and extrapolate it to an entire book?

And if you do figure out how to turn these documents into graphic books, how can you try to assure that what you put out there are more than simple novelties? How do you make them something other than what people might expect?

Q: You’ve collaborated with illustrator Aaron McConnell on both your book on Gettysburg and the Constitution. How did you two work together to ensure an accurate and appropriate portrayal of these significant historical events?

Aaron likes to do a lot of research on his own. But I honestly can’t write a panel description like, “We see the entire membership of the Supreme Court of the United States at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson” or something without instantly feeling guilty about having heaped too much work on my partner. So I take it as part of my job to collect a trove of reference images of people, places and things so Aaron can concentrate on the actual work of drawing. The Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog is absolutely instrumental for me, and I try (and likely fail) to keep up an appropriate appreciation for the work all those archivists and digitizers do to make that available to the public. It is mind-boggling how much great material is available online through the Library of Congress — and at such high quality.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to seek new ways to present history, such as in a graphic novel?

There are legions of people out there who will never sit down to read a 600-page monograph on Constitutional law or even a comprehensive one-volume book on the Civil War. But they can sit down with a book like mine for a few hours and get, or reclaim, a fairly workable foothold on the subject.

I think that kind of investment of time and interest can make someone a better citizen, a more informed voter and a more energetic pursuer of knowledge. And with that knowledge, who knows what insights they might have? Who knows what they then might contribute to society, using their own talents? Like many, many others, I love our country and want to make it a better place. And I do think good books can play a role in that ambition. There are, to me, a few absolutely unforgettable books that just completely shook up the way I saw things. After reading them I felt like I understood the world — why things are they way they are — so much better. It would be a great privilege for me to be someday able to affect a reader in that same way.

Q: And, of course, in closing, any final thoughts on your book, the Gettysburg Address and commemorating its anniversary?

The Gettysburg Address is honored and remembered because of the events that prompted it and also because of the high order of its eloquence. But it’s also honored and remembered because people intentionally set out to make sure it would be. Groups like the Grand Army of the Republic — essentially a special-interest lobbying group for Union Army veterans throughout Reconstruction and beyond — took great pains to have the speech reprinted, placed on plaques in public places and included in textbooks.

They did this as a way of promoting their vision of what the United States really is: a kind of transcendental covenant between people who are devoted to the ideas of freedom, liberty and good government, no matter what part of the country they dwell in. To them, the Union was far more than just a kind of practical cooperative that performs certain narrow tasks in the ultimate servitude of a handful of sovereign states. The Gettysburg Address rhetorically served the pro-Union, Republican Party agenda. And that’s because the speech speaks in terms of our being a single unified nation, ultimately dedicated to bringing into practice the radical idea of equality — not just managing the economy and establishing a court system and a military.

The United States is still divided over what the federal government’s role should actually be. I don’t know what it will take to reconcile these fundamental differences. But the Gettysburg Address shows us how potent and long-lasting the effects of the written word can be. I hope that someone, someday, may — like Lincoln — thoughtfully examine the ideas this country was founded on and go on to compose as powerful and poetic a vision of how we can be truer to our first principles.

One Comment

  1. Jennifer Trippeer
    November 19, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    Gratitude to the Library of Congress for sharing such an enlightening view of The Gettysburg Address From a family highly focused on President Lincoln, the information shared throughout this interview leaves me wanting to learn more about the scope this important text. Thank you to those who organized such an important tribute to such a crucial figure in our history and to author Jonathan Hennessey. Thank you for such honoured work.

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