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William Safire’s a Spirit Reborn, Essay Example

Pages: 2

Words: 588

Essay

William Safire’s inspirational essay A Spirit Reborn was written to commemorate the September 11th terrorist attacks on the world trade center. In it, the writer discusses how Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address, which was to be spoken at the site of the attacks on the anniversary by the governor of New York, retains the relevance and vitality it had at first utterance for contemporary Americans, and offers suggestions as to how his readers can engage with and understand the speech. In this sense, then, Safire’s essay is both an impassioned plea and a piece of literary criticism, an odd, but highly effective, combination.

The essay begins by outlining the topic, and then moves immediately on to indicate the rhetorical force and evocative power of the speech under discussion. Safire writes of “the famous phrases. . . . [which] many now recite by rote” and mentions the “sonorous” nature of the language (Safire, 2002). The import of the essay is not the simple veneration of national iconography, however, and the following paragraph sketches the outline of the direction it will take.

Safire writes that the repetition of Lincoln’s dedication “need not be only an exercise in historical evocation, nonpolitical correctness and patriotic solemnity.” Rather, he explains, the relevance of the speech is that, on the occasion both of its first delivery and the anniversary of September 11th, “a national spirit rose from the ashes of destruction.” The emphasis on national spirit – as indicated by the title, the main concern of the essay – thoroughly informs the author’s understanding of the Gettysburg address, which, he claims, is closely tied up with the idea of dedication.

The word “dedicate,” according to Safire, appears five times in the short speech, and carries three different meanings.  He writes:

The first two times refer to the nation’s dedication to two ideals mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, the original ideal of ”liberty” and the ideal that became central to the Civil War: ”that all men are created equal.” . . . The third, or middle, dedication is directed to the specific consecration of the site of the battle of Gettysburg: ”to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place.” The fourth and fifth times Lincoln repeated dedicate reaffirmed those dual ideals for which the dead being honored fought: ”to the unfinished work” and then ”to the great tasks remaining before us” of securing freedom and equality.

The preoccupation with this idea rests, Safire contends, “on a fundament of religious metaphor,” which is “the theme of national resurrection. . . . conception, birth, death and rebirth.”

It is from the implications of this insight that the full force of Lincoln’s address, and of Safire’s essay, proceeds. The invocation of the mythical processes of birth, death and resurrection become a rallying call for American citizens to remember the ideals in the name of which their nation was forged and to see the attacks as an impetus to reaffirm their commitment to freedom. The historical parallels between the two events reminds “’us the living’” of our ‘unfinished work’ and ‘the great task remaining before us’ – to resolve that this generation’s response to the deaths of thousands of our people leads to ‘a new birth of freedom.’”

William Safire’s A Spirit Reborn can thus be seen as an insightful engagement with the nation’s mythology, and a powerful argument for the vitality of our oratorical traditions and democratic institutions.

Works Cited

Safire, W.  A Spirit Reborn.  In Bullock, R. and Goggin, M. (Eds.)  The Norton Field Guide to Writing. New York: Norton, 2005.

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