Thursday, February 5, 2015

Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington

In Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, David Mark Epstein explores the mutual world  Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman inhabited during the Civil War era.

Not knowing the specifics of their interactions, I was surprised as I read the book that these men never met.  In the beginning of this work the connection between Lincoln and Whitman appears tenuous, especially on Lincoln’s side.  Epstein explains that a copy of Leaves of Grass was on a table of Lincoln's law firm in Illinois, and there is some anecdotal evidence he may have read the poem.  But it is not certain. When he became President and entered the tumultuous years of the Civil War, there is little to no evidence that Lincoln paid attention to Whitman at all. He had more important matters to attend to than the shaggy poet from Brooklyn.

But Epstein eventually lays a case that both men inhabited the same world.  They had friends and acquaintances in common, and at least for Whitman, Lincoln grew in stature with the progress of time.  The poet saw him as a muse of sorts, the beatified leader of a struggling democracy.  And with Lincoln’s murder, he took on the role of both eulogist and deifier, binding Lincoln up in the hopes and aspirations of the Union in the years that followed.

Epstein writes well about both men.  Whitman lived longer than Lincoln, and his celebrity grew with time.  So the book overwhelmingly focuses on Whitman and his poetry.  Lincoln became for Whitman both a grand symbol of American greatness and the high water mark of national sacrifice.  And in the long, corrupt years after the war, both Lincoln’s and Whitman’s stars rose on the tide of national, collective disappointment. 

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