Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington
By Daniel Mark Epstein
Ballantine Books, $24.95, pp. 380
Washington Post Book World, February 15, 2004
Walt Whitman, nineteenth-century America's greatest poet, and Abraham Lincoln, its greatest political leader, shared a number of experiences and beliefs. Fired by a powerful ambition to succeed, each rose to prominence from humble origins. Neither had much formal education, but both achieved a remarkable command of the English language. They disliked slavery, believed fervently in democracy, and lived in Washington during the Civil War. These affinities, Daniel Mark Epstein believes, justify describing the two men as leading “parallel lives.”
It is easier to say what Lincoln and Whitman is not, than what it is. The book's treatment of its two protagonists' lives is too episodic to qualify as dual biography. It is not the story of a relationship, because none existed. Nor does Epstein succeed in establishing intellectual or artistic influence, one way or the other. He suggests that a change in Lincoln's literary style occurred in the year 1857, when he read the “long, racy, unrhymed” free verse (7) of Whitman's “Leaves of Grass.” The opening of Lincoln's little-known 1858 Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, Epstein points out, sounds a lot like Whitman (“all of creation is a mine, and every man, a miner”). (31). But this hardly establishes that Whitman, as Epstein claims, exerted a “distinct literary influence” (36) on Lincoln.
In Euclidian geometry, parallel lines never intersect. Nor, it seems, did Lincoln and Whitman's parallel lives, except in Walt Whitman's fertile imagination. After the poet moved from New York to Washington in 1862, Lincoln began to appear in Whitman's dreams. He rented rooms near the White House and persuaded himself that he and the president were kindred spirits: “We are afloat on the same stream -- we are rooted in the same ground.” (90) Whitman became, in Epstein's words, “a President-watcher.” (162) He stationed himself on a street corner during the summer of 1863 to catch a glimpse of Lincoln on his daily carriage ride. “I see the president almost every day,” Whitman wrote. (172). But apart from waving once or twice, Lincoln seems to have been unaware of Whitman's presence.
Like the Whitman-Lincoln “relationship” itself, Epstein's account lacks balance. A poet and a biographer of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Epstein offers a revealing character study of Whitman and a penetrating analysis of his wartime poetry. He brings the private Whitman to life with all his powerful and unstable emotions his desire to serve his country, his ambition to be recognized as the American poet, his frustration with a burdensome family and lack of commercial success. He expertly paints the worlds in which Whitman moved, from Pfaff's saloon, where the poet enjoyed the “bohemian camaraderie” (54) of the New York literati, to the military hospitals in Washington where he tended wounded soldiers during the Civil War. He offers a sensitive account of Whitman's homoerotic attachments, especially his love affair with a young Washington streetcar conductor, Peter Doyle, which began in 1865 and lasted for nearly a decade.
Epstein is at his best in describing the impact on Whitman of Lincoln's assassination. Peter Doyle was at Ford's Theatre that night and heard the fatal shot. Whitman was in New York. When news of Lincoln's death reached the city, he took to the streets, jotting observations in his notebook that seem uncannily familiar to anyone who recalls the immediate aftermath of September 11 business suspended, flags at half staff, and on people's faces a “strange mixture of horror, fury, tenderness, and a stirring wonder brewing.” (275). The assassination inspired Whitman to write his greatest poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” A metaphysical rumination on death and a panorama of the grieving nation as Lincoln's coffin traveled to its Illinois resting place, this, wrote Algernon Swinburne, was “the most sweet and sonorous nocturne ever chanted in the church of the world.” (250) Today's generation produced nothing remotely comparable after our own recent national tragedy.
Lincoln, unfortunately, remains a far more shadowy presence in the book than Whitman. Epstein allows Whitman's language to entrance the reader, but not Lincoln's, and he fails to turn his interpretive talents to Lincoln's writings. The Gettysburg Address goes unmentioned and of the magnificent second inaugural, perhaps Lincoln's greatest speech, Epstein says only that it was “notable ... more for its restraint than its eloquence.” (255). He calls Whitman and Lincoln “visionaries” (ix) but tells us next to nothing about Lincoln's views on the issues of the day the Union, emancipation, the future status of the freedpeople. When he does venture into wartime politics, Epstein's judgments are not always reliable. Was Lincoln really a “pariah” (133-4) in the eyes of most Americans in the spring of 1863? Was his pocket veto of the Wade-Davis Bill of 1864 the “most contentious” (231) exercise of presidential power in American history?
Epstein's dual portrait ends in 1887 with Whitman delivering a lecture on Lincoln to a distinguished New York audience that included Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie. The poet presented a moving and revealing personal reminiscence. Yet the speech remained too episodic and too apolitical to offer a truly profound account of Lincoln's career, such as Frederick Douglass had offered eleven years earlier in his great oration at the unveiling of a Lincoln statue in Washington. In a sense, Lincoln and Whitman has the same strengths as Whitman's address, and suffers from the same weaknesses.
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of “Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World” (Hill and Wang).