Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ask not what was in prior drafts (oh, all right, do...)

On Fallows' blog earlier this month, I took a "coming to it cold" look at JFK's inaugural address and noted, among other things, its beleaguered tone (Kennedy begins by warning that both freedom and humanity itself are in danger of extinction) and its relentlessly global focus -- there is not a mention of domestic issues, and only the final segment of the speech is directed to "my fellow Americans" as opposed to various foreign audiences.

In the current New Yorker, Obama speechwriter Adam Frankel recounts a remarkable tale of the discovery last month of probably the earliest known draft of Kennedy's famous speech, composed by Theodore Sorenson (Frankel relates that Sorenson and Kennedy seem to have worked concurrently on separate drafts, which they began to meld the day after the newly discovered Sorenson draft was created).  Both points above get some reinforcement from Frankel's narrative. First, the strictly international focus:
In “Kennedy,” Sorensen wrote that J.F.K. thought his early drafts focussed too heavily on domestic issues: “We must begin by facing the fact that history’s most abundant economy has slackened its growth to a virtual halt. That the world’s most productive farmers have only suffered for their success. . . . That too many of our cities are sinking into squalor.” This and other passages from the January 14th version also give the impression that Kennedy and Sorensen were still writing in the language of the campaign...

Perhaps the most significant deletion was a reference to civil rights. The January 14th draft reads, “Our nation’s most precious resource, our youth, are developed according to their race or funds, instead of their own capability.”
Second, that sense of embattlement was actually tempered by time the speech was finalized. Left on the cutting room floor was what I imagine to be a Gothic evocation of nuclear brinksmanship:  "“risking while resisting a Walpurgis Night dance of hideous destruction and death."*

Anyway, I hope that context-light "cold" reading of canonical  texts can be thought a bloggish prerogative and not a complete waste of readers' time. Turns out that several whole books (e.g., 1, 2) have been written about Kennedy's speech, and more than one about Obama's speechifying thus far.  Looks like I have some reading to do.

* Walpurgis Night?? [huh? That'd be a witches' sabbath, or "an episode or a situation having the quality of nightmarish wildness," according to About.com].

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