It was more than coincidence--indeed, it was all but fate--that the lives and thoughts of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman should converge during the terrible years of the Civil War. Kindred spirits despite their profound differences in position and circumstance, Lincoln and Whitman shared a vision of the democratic character that sprang from the deepest part of their being. They had read or listened to each other's words at crucial turning points in their lives. Both were utterly transformed by the tragedy of the war. In this radiant book, poet and biographer Daniel Mark Epstein tracks the parallel lives of these two titans from the day that Lincoln first read Leaves of Grass to the elegy Whitman composed after Lincoln's assassination in 1865.
Drawing on the rich trove of personal and newspaper accounts, diary records, and lore that has accumulated around both the president and the poet, Epstein structures his double portrait in a series of dramatic, atmospheric scenes. Whitman, though initially skeptical of the Illinois Republican, became enthralled when Lincoln stopped in New York on the way to his first inauguration. During the war years, after Whitman moved to Washington to minister to wounded soldiers, the poet's devotion to the president developed into a passion bordering on obsession. "Lincoln is particularly my man, and by the same token, I am Lincoln's man."
As Epstein shows, the influence and reverence flowed both ways. Lincoln had been deeply immersed in Whitman's verse when he wrote his incendiary "House Divided" speech, and Whitman remained an influence during the darkest years of the war. But their mutual impact went beyond the intellectual. Epstein brings to life the many friends and contacts his heroes shared--Lincoln's debonair private secretary John Hay, the fiery abolitionist senator Charles Sumner, the mysterious and possibly dangerous Polish Count Gurowski--as he unfolds the story of their legendary encounters in New York City and especially Washington during the war years.
Blending history, biography, and a deeply informed appreciation of Whitman's verse and Lincoln's rhetoric, Epstein has written a masterful and original portrait of two great men and the era they shaped through the vision they held in common.
Poet and biographer Epstein (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, about Edna St. Vincent Millay) covers the same ground canvassed most recently, and more ably, by Roy Morris Jr. in his much-praised The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War. Where Epstein falters is in his basic paradigm: a narrative that insists on interleaving the "parallel"-but never intersecting-lives of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. The two never met. They shared no common ground in politics-Whitman, a copperhead Democrat, a bigot and no abolitionist, thought the Northern cause in the Civil War absurd. That Lincoln read and was impressed by Leaves of Grass is questioned by most scholars, yet Epstein takes it on face value. Later, moved by the tragic drama of the president's murder, Whitman wrote two elegiac poems ("When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "Captain, My Captain"). His subsequent "Specimen Days and Collect" included diary memoranda referring to glimpses of Lincoln around Washington, and in old age the impoverished Whitman sometimes raised money for himself by giving talks containing his reminiscences of Lincoln and wartime Washington. But the "parallels" between these two very different lives don't hold together the thread of Epstein's narrative. As well, readers well versed in the story of Whitman and his milieu during the early 1860s will be annoyed by several small errors. (Example: The New York poet and farmer Myron Benton was not a friend of Whitman's, though he was a fan of the poet's and had a mutual friend in John Burroughs.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 19, 2004
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Excerpt from Lincoln and Whitman by Daniel Mark Epstein
Abraham Lincoln's law partner William "Billy" Herndon, thirty-nine, loved the birds and wildflowers of the prairie, pretty women, and corn liquor. He also had an immoderate passion for new books, and for the transcendental philosophizing of pastor Theodore Parker and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. By his own accounting he had spent four thousand dollars on his collection of poetry, philosophy, and belles lettres-a fortune in those days, when a good wood-frame house in Springfield, Illinois, cost half as much. Journalist George Alfred Townsend called Herndon's library the finest in the West.
Herndon's narrow, earnest-looking face was fringed with whiskers in the Scots manner, and his eyes were close-set, intense. His favorite philosopher-poet was Emerson. Herndon so admired the Sage of Concord that he purchased Emerson's books by the carton and gave them away to friends and strangers with the zeal of an evangelist. A backwoods philosopher, Herndon even solicited Emerson's endorsement for his tract "Some Hints on the Mind," in which he claimed to have discovered the mind's fundamental principle, "if not its law."
So when Emerson espoused a new book of poetry, calling it "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed," Herndon wasted no time in locating a copy, which could be found on the shelves of R. Blanchard's, Booksellers, in Chicago, where he frequently traveled on business.
Having held the olive-green book, its cover blind-stamped with leaves and berries; having regarded with a twinge of envy the salutation "I Greet You at the / Beginning of A / Great Career / R W Emerson," gold-stamped on the spine, the bibliophile-lawyer plunked down his golden dollar for the second edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. And knowing the storm the book had caused in more sophisticated circles, Herndon brought the brickbat-shaped volume to the office he shared with Lincoln and set it in clear view on the table, where anyone might pick up the book and thumb through it. Leaves of Grass was exactly the length of a man's hand. He laid it down on the baize-covered table with the complacence of an anarchist waiting for a bomb to explode.
The Lincoln-Herndon law office was on the second floor of a brick building on the west side of Springfield's main square, across from the courthouse. Visitors mounted a flight of stairs and passed down a dark hallway to a medium-sized room in the rear of the building. The upper half of the door had a pane of beveled glass, with a curtain hanging from a wire, on brass rings. Lincoln would unlock the door, open it, and draw the curtain as he closed the door behind him. Two dusty windows overlooked the alley.
Herndon's biographer David Donald describes the office as "a center of political activity, of gossip and friendly banter, and of such remote problems as the merits of Walt Whitman's poetry."