Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Lincoln, Abraham (1809–1865)
Author:
Pannapacker, William A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States (1861–1865). Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln are often linked as kindred spirits for their commitment to democratic ideals, the preservation of the Union, and the greatness of the common folk. Lincoln's two inaugural addresses (1861, 1865) and his "Gettysburg Address" (1863), along with Whitman's Drum-Taps (1865), are among the most significant literary products of the Civil War. Whitman's poems, "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," published as a sequel to Drum-Taps in 1865, became the most admired poetic tributes to the assassinated president. After the Civil War, Whitman was increasingly identified with Lincoln because of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, Memoranda During the War (1875–1876), Specimen Days & Collect (1882), and his lecture "Death of Abraham Lincoln" (1879). "Lincoln," Whitman said, "is particularly my man" (qtd. in Barton 170).

Lincoln probably knew little about Whitman. There is an account of Lincoln reading Leaves of Grass in his Springfield law office, and the president is reported to have seen Whitman in Washington, D.C., and said, "Well, he looks like a man!" (qtd. in Barton 96). William Barton, in his study of the two men, shows that these events are probably fabrications. Yet there were political, rhetorical, and biographical similarities that supported an association of Whitman with Lincoln. As Whitman observed, they were "afloat in the same stream" and "rooted in the same ground" (qtd. in Barton 170). Both opposed the expansion of slavery, but they were not abolitionists. Both were committed to free labor and territorial expansion, but the preservation of the Union was paramount. Both revered the heroes of the American Revolution, particularly Washington; neither adhered to any religious sect. They shared working-class origins, and each adopted the rhetoric of Jacksonian populism. Their literary styles were both influenced by the Bible, William Shakespeare, Thomas Paine, and Robert Burns; both also tapped the vitality of American vernacular speech, political oratory, and drama. Lincoln even seems an incarnation of the poet-redeemer described in the 1855 Preface to Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Whitman himself would later imply that they were comparable types: "Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else" (With Walt Whitman 1:38).

In 1856 Whitman describes his ideal president as a "heroic, shrewd, fully-inform'd, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman" emerging from the West (Prose Works 2:535). But Whitman was not initially enthusiastic about Lincoln; his admiration grew from personal exposure. When Lincoln visited New York en route to Washington in 1861, his striking appearance and unpretentious dignity made a lasting first impression on Whitman. While living in Washington from 1862 to 1865, Whitman observed the president regularly and came to trust the "supernatural tact" and "idiomatic Western genius" of his "captain" (Correspondence 1:83). He admired the president's plainness, his homespun humor; he often contemplated Lincoln's face, "the peculiar color, the lines of it, the eyes, mouth, expression" (Prose Works 1:100). No portrait, he repeatedly said, had ever captured Lincoln's "goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness" (Prose Works 1:92). In 1863 Whitman writes, "I love the President personally," and the poems of Drum-Taps soon echoed the themes of Lincoln's speeches (Notebooks 2:539).

Whitman was deeply moved by Lincoln's death on Good Friday, 14 April 1865. It was a personal tragedy, but it also seemed like the culminating sacrifice of an epic poem. Drum-Taps was incomplete without some concluding tribute to Lincoln. Whitman eventually added four poems: "O Captain! My Captain!," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," "Hush'd be the Camps To-day," and "This Dust was Once the Man." "O Captain!" describes the poet's grief for the Union's fallen helmsman in uncharacteristically conventional verse. "Lilacs," on the other hand, is a complex threnody that moves from personal loss to a contemplation of mortality in general. Without specifically mentioning Lincoln, it transforms his assassination into a redemptive martyrdom that restores the poet's lost voice and binds up the shattered Union.

In later years, Whitman was divided between a ritualized commitment to Lincoln's memory, stated at the outset of "Lilacs," and increasingly self-serving demonstrations of civic piety. The Lincoln poems, particularly "O Captain!," were received indulgently; they helped to make the controversial author of Leaves more acceptable to genteel readers. With the aid of supporters like William D. O'Connor, Whitman promoted himself as an authority on Lincoln, a comparable type, and even the object of Lincoln's admiration. Whitman's lecture on the assassination at Ford's Theater, "Death of Abraham Lincoln," was an annual rite between 1879 and 1890 in which Lincoln became America's mythical "Martyr Chief," and Whitman became the Good Gray Poet (Prose Works 2:509). Whitman thought "O Captain!" to be one of his weaker poems and often tired of reading it. "Damn My Captain," he said, "I'm almost sorry I ever wrote the poem" (With Walt Whitman 2:304). Nevertheless, he almost always concluded his lectures with an emotional reading of "O Captain!" Like Washington, Lincoln had entered the American civil religion, and Whitman submitted to demands for a conventional elegist. It was a profitable venture, for it kept Whitman before the public long enough to reveal the value of his other works.

Bibliography

Barton, William E. Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928.

Coyle, William, ed. The Poet and the President: Whitman's Lincoln Poems. New York: Odyssey, 1962.

Grossman, Allan. "The Poetics of Union in Whitman and Lincoln: An Inquiry Toward the Relationship of Art and Policy." The American Renaissance Reconsidered. Ed. Walter Benn Michaels and Donald E. Pease. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985. 183–208.

Lincoln, Abraham. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. 9 vols. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1953–1955.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton, 1908.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

———. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

———. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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