Knox scholar Douglas Wilson awarded Huntington Fellowship

"Our special wonder" -- Why did Lincoln love Shakespeare's Macbeth?

May 16, 2011

Lincoln Letter - Douglas Wilson
Douglas Wilson, right, with Lincoln's letter to actor James Hackett, praising Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Douglas Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College and an acclaimed Abraham Lincoln scholar, has been awarded a 2011-12 Huntington Fellowship to research Lincoln's interest in Shakespeare.

The month-long fellowship will support Wilson's work at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, in early 2012. An independent research center with extensive book and manuscript collections in British and American history, the Huntington awards approximately 100 research fellowships annually.

"I've always been interested in what Lincoln read, and in particular his reading of Shakespeare," Wilson said. While it's well known that Lincoln was an avid reader of Shakespeare, Wilson said, "for most historians, it's incidental" to their interest in Lincoln's politics and the Civil War.

In addition, Wilson said, his research will explore the context of literacy in American during the early 1800s -- how Lincoln's interest in literature paralleled the explosive growth in printing and literacy in the United States.

"Prior to the 1800s, you had to make paper and set type by hand. Publishing was a cumbersome, expensive process, and only the very wealthy could afford something like a multi-volume set of Shakespeare's works," Wilson said. "But starting in the early 1800s in the United States, paper-making and book-making became mechanized. You could make a lot of books very cheaply, which made books far more accessible."

Lincoln was well known for carrying Shakespeare's collected works as he traveled his legal circuit in Illinois during the 1840s and 1850s, Wilson said. Born in 1809, Lincoln was largely self-taught -- the very first academic degree he received was an honorary doctorate awarded by Knox College in 1860.

In his earlier research on Lincoln's writing, Wilson said, he was struck by something unusual in a letter from Lincoln to James Henry Hackett (image below), a prominent 19th century Shakespearean actor and author. "In the letter, Lincoln praises 'Macbeth' as 'wonderful.' This is unusual because Lincoln very rarely expressed a personal opinion in his letters," Wilson said. "It is very uncharacteristic of Lincoln to say that something is 'wonderful'."

The correspondence between Lincoln and Hackett archived at the Library of Congress comprises just over twenty letters. The letters are among the thousands of letters to and from Lincoln that have been transcribed and annotated by Wilson and Knox colleague Rodney Davis and their research team at the Lincoln Studies Center.

Before co-founding the Lincoln Studies Center with Davis in 1996, Wilson taught English at Knox, and served as director of Knox's Seymour Library and as director of the International Jefferson Center in Monticello.

Wilson and Davis co-edited "Herndon's Informants," one of the most influential books of modern Lincoln scholarship, and "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition," the first ever scholarly edition of the most famous political debates in American history.

Wilson's publications include two books that have won the Abraham Lincoln Prize -- "Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words," and "Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln."

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 48 states and 51 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Below, letter from Lincoln to James Hackett, expressing Lincoln's admiration for Shakespeare and especially Macbeth. Image from Library of Congress. Transcription by the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College: "...Some of Shakspeare's plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful..."
Lincoln Letter - Library of Congress