Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Death of Abraham Lincoln" (1879)
Author:
Griffin, Larry D.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman delivered his "Death of Abraham Lincoln" lecture for the first of at least eight, and possibly as many as thirteen, times in New York in 1879.

In this lecture Whitman eulogizes Abraham Lincoln, calling him the "first great Martyr Chief" of the United States of America (Prose Works 2:509). Whitman's subject is how the impact of Lincoln's death will ultimately filter into all of America. He himself promises to commemorate Lincoln each year until his own death. Whitman reminisces about seeing Lincoln for the first time in 1861: stepping from a barouche onto the sidewalk in New York, with great courage Lincoln faced a silent and unfriendly crowd. Living in Washington during the next four years, Whitman recalls seeing Lincoln there several times, sometimes on the street and occasionally at Ford Theater. Whitman claims that from the Civil War a "great literature will yet arise" (Prose Works 2:502). He then launches into a moving first-person report of the actual events of the assassination on 14 April 1865. He writes as if he were a member of the crowd at the theater who heard the screams and felt the tension of the near rioting that followed. Actually, Whitman was in New York when Lincoln was shot.

Whitman's "Reading Book," deposited by Thomas Harned in the Library of Congress, contains eighteen poems—some by Whitman, some by other poets he admired—from which he often read following the Lincoln lecture. Among these poems are "O Captain! My Captain!" (1865), "Proud Music of the Storm" (1869), and "To the Man-of-War-Bird" (1876) (Whitman, Workshop 204–206, n43).

After Whitman gave the Lincoln lecture at Association Hall in Philadelphia on 15 April 1880, a Philadelphia Press writer reported a straightforward delivery in "a tone only sufficiently higher than he would make use of in talking to a friend to make sure that the most distant hearer would catch every word" (Whitman, Memoranda 33–34). Whitman's delivery moved many members of the audience to tears, and he concluded with a reading of his "O Captain! My Captain!" Whitman also delivered the Lincoln lecture in Boston in 1881. Audience member William Dean Howells called the experience "an address of singular quiet, delivered in a voice of winning and endearing friendliness" (74). One of Whitman's four deliveries of the address in 1886 was at the Chestnut Opera House in Philadelphia. Stuart Merrill (1863–1915) claims that Whitman's "recital was as gripping as the messenger's report in Aeschylus" (55). Among the audience members who heard Whitman give the Lincoln lecture at Madison Square Theater in New York on 14 April 1887 were Andrew Carnegie, Mary Mapes Dodge, Daniel Coit Gilman, John Milton Hay, James Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Mark Twain (Whitman, Memoranda 40). In "Memoranda" in Good-Bye My Fancy (1891), Whitman reports delivering the Lincoln lecture for the last time on 15 April 1890, in the Arts Room in Philadelphia (Prose Works 2:684).

Bibliography

Howells, William Dean. Literary Friends and Acquaintance: A Personal Retrospect of American Authorship. New York: Harper, 1900.

Merrill, Stuart. "Walt Whitman." 1912. Trans. John J. Espey. Walt Whitman Newsletter 3 (1957): 55–57.

Whitman, Walt. Memoranda During the War & Death of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962.

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

____. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Clifton Joseph Furness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.


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