Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington

Overview

Kindred spirits despite their profound differences in position, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman shared a vision of the democratic character. They had read or listened to each other’s words at crucial turning points in their lives, and both were utterly transformed by the tragedy of the Civil 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 ...
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Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington

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Overview

Kindred spirits despite their profound differences in position, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman shared a vision of the democratic character. They had read or listened to each other’s words at crucial turning points in their lives, and both were utterly transformed by the tragedy of the Civil 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 a rich trove of personal and newspaper accounts and diary records, Epstein shows how the influence and reverence flowed between these two men–and brings to life the many friends and contacts they shared. Epstein has written a masterful portrait of two great American figures and the era they shaped through words and deeds.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Daniel Mark Epstein [brings] to life with passionate vividness...the parallel lives of the president and the poet."
The Wall Street Journal

“RIVETING…the book places its two subjects in uniquely sharp perspective. A compelling portrait of Lincoln and Whitman as contemporaries, as visionaries, and as Americans.”
-- The Baltimore Sun

“A pleasure to read. It’s…easy to be charmed by Epstein’s style.”
-- The Savannah Morning News

“VIVID…Lincoln and Whitman is nothing if not balanced. Epstein deftly traces the links between Whitman’s poems and Lincoln’s speeches…echoes that reverberate.”
-- Newsday

“There have not been many poet-biographers in this country…Epstein is part of [a] select company. Mr. Epstein’s new book shows that poetry is at the heart of what made both Lincoln, and the country great.”
-- The New York Sun

Beautifully written . . . Epstein’s portraits of the president and the poet, his sketches of a fascinating supporting cast, his depiction of Civil War Washington’s mix of squalor and majesty . . . all are exquisitely exact. Lincoln and Whitman is an elegant book.”
The Providence Journal

“Whitman and Lincoln aren’t the only two poets in the work; Epstein himself is a well-published poet, and the rhythms of verse inform his prose. Under his hand the nation’s capital becomes a living character.”
St. Petersburg Times

“A revealing character study.”
--ERIC FONER, The Washington Post

“Epstein memorably evokes the look and feel of Washington during the Civil War, the eerily adjacent lives there of Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln, and the frantic events that issued in the murder of our greatest president and the writing of our greatest poem, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.’ Combining biography and history, his ingeniously constructed double narrative of personal development and national tragedy radiates humor, wonderment, and terror.”
KENNETH SILVERMAN, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Life and Times of Cotton Mather and Edgar A. Poe: Mournful Never-ending Remembrance

“Deftly written and carefully researched, this book uncovers fresh and often surprising connections between America’s greatest poet and its greatest statesman. Daniel Mark Epstein reveals a political side to Whitman and a literary side to Lincoln, finding new subtleties of character and skill in each of these towering figures. Along the way, he re-creates nineteenth-century life in fascinating ways.”
DAVID S. REYNOLDS, City University of New York, author of the prize-winning Walt Whitman’s America and Beneath the American Renaissance

“Perhaps only a writer who has produced both biography and poetry could have crafted such an illuminating, elegant book. The scholarship is excellent, the ideas provocative, and the writing simply sublime. Both Lincoln and Whitman—together with the long-vanished culture in which they lived—come vividly, sometimes startlingly, alive in Daniel Mark Epstein’s luminous prose.”
HAROLD HOLZER, author of The Lincoln Image and co-chairman of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

The Baltimore Sun
Epstein, a Baltimore biographer, magazine writer and poet has yoked Lincoln and Whitman in a detailed narrative sure to please the vast audience that both men justly command. The books is a fine combination of biography, history, and literary criticism, with several quirky excursions into the mysteries of the two men’s lives and loves.
The New Yorker
During the final two years of the Civil War, Walt Whitman lived in a Spartan rented room a few rutted blocks north of the White House. The poet and the President who inspired his most popular poem (“O Captain! My Captain!”) and his most beautiful (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”) never met. But Whitman often planted himself along the route of Lincoln’s carriage as it rattled to the President’s summer retreat, and the two men would exchange grave, friendly nods. Years later, Whitman, palsied but still Jovian, lectured about the great man to a Gilded Age audience that included Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Andrew Carnegie, and General Sherman. Epstein, an accomplished poet as well as a biographer, imbues his tale of two lives with a natural sense of detail and period that revivifies the familiar figures he writes about.
Publishers Weekly
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.) (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Beginning with Abraham Lincoln's fascination with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the author uses Lincoln's activities in the nation's capital as a backdrop for the story of Whitman's life there during the Civil War. Working as a copy clerk, Whitman spent most of his free time comforting wounded Union soldiers. A dedicated Lincoln admirer, he also planned his walks around the city to coincide with the President's carriage rides, often waving to Lincoln as he watched him pass. The closest the poet came to the President was to see him from an adjoining room in the White House. As Whitman published his book of poetry Drum-Taps, Lincoln was assassinated. Whitman's grief led to his poems "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd" and "O Captain, My Captain." Both are included here, along with brief interpretations. The author's premise that there is value in juxtaposing the lives of a famous president and a poet is not supported. There is not enough evidence of a strong connection between the two men to warrant a book on the subject. Epstein (author of biographies of Aimee Semple McPherson, Nat King Cole, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as a number of books of poetry) emphasizes literary aspects rather than historical ones. A marginal purchase that only libraries with Whitman collections need consider. (Illustrations not seen.)-Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. P.L., Metamora Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Poet and biographer Epstein (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, 2001, etc.) brings insight from both his specialties to bear on two defining figures of the Civil War era. Whitman and Lincoln never met, although the two were evidently in the same room on several occasions as the president greeted visitors to the White House while Whitman watched from an unobtrusive distance. Yet Epstein argues that the two exerted a powerful influence on one another. Lincoln reportedly read Leaves of Grass before he began his political career, and the author finds traces of Whitman's rhetoric in Lincoln's speeches. In Whitman's case, the influence has long been recognized. Several poems pay tribute to the fallen leader, and in his latter years Whitman lectured on his memories of Lincoln and on the president's place in the nation's history. In this dual biography, Epstein undertakes to suggest a closer connection. He does so largely by connecting the two men's lives in Washington during the war years, when Whitman served as a volunteer nurse to wounded Union and Confederate soldiers, supporting himself with clerical jobs for various governmental agencies. The heart of the book concerns Whitman's nursing of the wounded soldiers, for whom he felt a strong empathy. (One of them became, for a time, his lover.) His volume of war poetry, Drum Taps, grew out of his direct experience of the conflict's human cost. Whitman frequently observed Lincoln traveling around the district and was part of the crowd for several official appearances, including the Second Inaugural Address. Whether the shaggy bohemian poet made any impression on the busy president is anyone's guess; Epstein understandably speculates, but generallymanages not to overstate his case. He is at his best in his sensitive readings of Whitman's poems about Lincoln, especially the elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Powerful and evocative. Agent: Neil Olsen
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345458001
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/11/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Mark Epstein is the author of highly acclaimed biographies of Aimee Semple McPherson, Nat King Cole, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, as well as seven volumes of poetry. His verse has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among other national publications. Epstein lives in Baltimore.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

SPRINGFIELD, 1857

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."

The office was untidy and cobwebbed. Once, after Lincoln had come home from Congress with the customary dole of seeds to distribute to farmers, John Littlefield, a law student, discovered while sweeping that some of the stray wheat seeds had sprouted in the cracks between the floorboards. A long pine table that divided the room, and met with a shorter table to make a T, was scored by the jackknives of absent-minded clerks and clients. In one corner stood a secretary desk, its many pigeonholes and drawers stuffed with letters and memoranda, its besieged surface sustaining a spattered earthenware inkwell and a few gold pens. Bookcases rose between the tall windows. A spidery black stain blotted one wall, at the height of a man's head, where an ink bottle had exploded-the memento, according to Lincoln, of a disagreement between law students over a point of jurisprudence that would not yield to cold logic.

Papers were strewn everywhere, as if by a prairie wind: on the table, on the floor, on the five scattered cane-bottomed chairs and the ragged sofa where the senior partner of the firm liked to stretch out his full length, his head on the arm of the sofa. His legs were too long to fit the settee, so Lincoln would rest his feet on the raveling cane seat of a chair. There he reclined every morning, after arriving at nine, clean-shaven. And he would read, aloud. He read newspapers and books, always aloud, much to the annoyance of his partner, who found the high, tuneful voice, with its chuckling interludes and asides, a distraction from the warrants and writs and invoices. Herndon once asked Lincoln why he had to read aloud, and the forty-eight-year-old ex-Congressman explained: "Two senses catch the idea: first I see what I read; second I hear it, and therefore I can remember it better." Lincoln-not boasting-said that his mind was like steel: the gray matter was difficult to scratch, but once engraved on it, information was nearly impossible to efface. According to Herndon, Lincoln did not read many books, but whatever he did read he absorbed completely.

The law students got to Whitman first. Perhaps they had read about Leaves of Grass in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, where the eminent Charles Eliot Norton had announced that words "banished from polite society are here employed without reserve" and called the book a curious mixture of "Yankee Transcendentalism and New York rowdyism"; or they might have caught notice of it in the New York Criterion, where the dyspeptic Rufus Griswold referred to it as "this gathering of muck." In America's most influential literary journal, the North American Review, Edward Everett Hale rhapsodized about Leaves of Grass. And in May 1856 no less an authority than Fanny Fern-the highest-paid columnist in the country-referred to Whitman in the New York Ledger as "this glorious Native American." The book was widely praised and condemned, much discussed, if not much purchased or read.

According to Henry Bascom Rankin, who was a student in the Lincoln-Herndon office in 1857, "discussions hot and extreme sprung up between office students and Mr. Herndon concerning its poetic merit." A few verses:

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning,

You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,

And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart . . .

I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,

I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.

Poetry indeed! These long, racy, unrhymed verses did not look like any poetry the provincial law students had ever seen, no matter what Emerson or the bluestocking Fanny Fern wrote.

The talk of Whitman that animated the law office during the unseasonably warm spring of 1857 relieved the furious, anguished discussion of the Supreme Court's recent decision about Dred Scott, which aroused Lincoln from a spell of political torpor. Yet even Scott's fate led them back to Leaves of Grass:

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinned with the ooze of my skin . . .

The argument over Whitman did not differ much in Springfield from the dispute in Boston and New York. Was this poetry? Then there arose the livelier controversy over the book's brazen immodesty. Was Leaves of Grass indecent? Many of the verses sounded shameless, unfit for mixed company. Take for example the anonymous woman watching twenty-eight young men bathing by the shore, who comes "Dancing and laughing along the beach" to caress their naked bellies:

They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,

They do not think whom they souse with spray.

Was this Walt Whitman actually depicting a sexual act outlawed everywhere but in the debaters' dreams? It was shocking, pornographic. The men wondered whether such a book should be allowed on library shelves, or in homes where women and children might casually be seduced by it. Who was responsible for the corruption of morals: the author, the printer, the Chicago bookseller, or buyers of Leaves of Grass like Billy Herndon?

The students wrangled, and read the poems aloud, with Herndon sometimes acting as Whitman's advocate, other times as an impartial referee. Visitors dropping by, such as Dr. Newton Bateman, superintendent of schools, would join in the discussion provoked by lines such as:

A woman waits for me-she contains all, nothing is lacking,

Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking.

Lincoln worked quietly at his desk, raking his coarse hair with his long fingers, or he came and went, apparently oblivious to the disturbance the new book was causing in the workplace. Having lost a year to politics, stumping for the Republican John Frémont during the presidential campaign of 1856, advocating "free soil, free labor and free men," he had a lot of catching up to do in his neglected law practice. He was also having a spell of depression, "the hypochondria," as it was called in those days. This mood afflicted him periodically, often between periods of intense business or creative work. So he turned his back on the students, and Herndon and Dr. Bateman, as they challenged one another's taste in literature and questioned one another's morals, reading passages of Leaves of Grass and attacking or defending Whitman as the spirit, or the letter, moved them. The poet was utterly uninhibited, whether he was describing himself, or addressing the President:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,

Disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding,

No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women, or apart from

them-no more modest than immodest

. . .

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart

of on the same terms.

Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?

It is a trifle-they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.

One day, after the debaters had departed, a few clerks, including Henry Rankin, remained, copying documents. Lincoln rose from his desk. This was always a sight because sitting down Lincoln appeared to be of average height, but his limbs were so disproportionately long that when he unfolded and stretched them it was as if a giant had sprung up out of a common man.

"Quite a surprise occurred," Rankin recalled, in a memoir written years later. Lincoln picked up the book of poems that had been disturbing the peace and began to read, as he rarely did, in devoted silence, for more than half an hour by the Regulator clock. When the pressure of perusing the poetry silently became more than Lincoln could endure, he thumbed back to the first pages of Leaves of Grass and began reading aloud, in that tenderly expressive voice with the Kentucky accent and continual undercurrent of whimsical humor.

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

The light of afternoon streamed through the office windows, gilding the dust motes.

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes-the shelves are crowded with perfumes,

I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,

It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,

Echos, ripples, buzzed whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch, vine

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart . . .

"His rendering," Rankin remembered, "revealed a charm of new life in Whitman's versification." Here and there Lincoln found a verse too coarse, a line or phrase he felt the poet might have avoided. But on the whole he "commended the new poet's verses for their virility, freshness, unconventional sentiments, and unique forms of expression."

Lincoln put the book back down on the office table, desiring Herndon to leave Whitman there where he might not get lost in the tide of books, newspapers, and documents. "Time and again, when Lincoln came in, or was leaving, he would pick it up, as if to glance at it for only a moment, but instead he would often settle down in a chair and never stop reading aloud such verses or pages as he fancied."

Once Lincoln made the mistake of taking Leaves of Grass home. The next morning he brought the book back, grimly remarking that he "had barely saved it from being purified in fire by the women." This anecdote goes a long way toward explaining the politician's lifelong reticence about the poet and his book. Of course, by "the women" he meant his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who controlled nearly everything that went on inside the big, two-story house at the corner of Eighth and Jackson where they lived with their three boys.

It is uncertain what verses or pages Lincoln fancied. The feuds among Lincoln's early biographers, struggling over the soul of the martyred President, have few parallels in American letters. In 1928 a rival biographer, Reverend William E. Barton, in a popular book that took pains to disassociate Lincoln from Whitman, challenged Rankin's memory. As early as 1932, however, the scholar Charles Glicksberg, in Whitman and the Civil War, declared that Barton's book was "marked throughout by a hostile spirit toward Whitman" and discredited Barton's premise that Lincoln was unaware of Whitman's existence. Modern scholars, such as Whitman biographers Gay Wilson Allen and Jerome Loving, and David Herbert Donald, who wrote books on both Herndon and Lincoln, likewise have accepted Rankin's story in spite of Reverend Barton.

One of the points that authenticate Rankin's account is his dating of Lincoln's encounter with Leaves of Grass. Only in that year, two years after the first publication of Whitman's poems in 1855, would the ex-Congressman and future President Lincoln have had the freedom and inclination to study such a literary curiosity. Only in 1857 could the reading of Whitman have produced such an impact on his oratory.

Billy Herndon, who knew Lincoln better perhaps than any man in Lincoln's day, said he was the rare man without vices, but with a flagrant disregard for propriety, "the appropriateness of things." He was so heedless of his appearance that he forgot to comb his coarse black hair. He cared so little about clothing that sometimes he wouldn't wear this piece or that. After all, he was raised on a farm in Kentucky, barefoot. "He never could see the harm in wearing a sack-coat instead of a swallowtail to an evening party, nor could he realize the offense of telling a vulgar yarn if a preacher happened to be present."

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

SPRINGFIELD, 1857

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-stampedon 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."

The office was untidy and cobwebbed. Once, after Lincoln had come home from Congress with the customary dole of seeds to distribute to farmers, John Littlefield, a law student, discovered while sweeping that some of the stray wheat seeds had sprouted in the cracks between the floorboards. A long pine table that divided the room, and met with a shorter table to make a T, was scored by the jackknives of absent-minded clerks and clients. In one corner stood a secretary desk, its many pigeonholes and drawers stuffed with letters and memoranda, its besieged surface sustaining a spattered earthenware inkwell and a few gold pens. Bookcases rose between the tall windows. A spidery black stain blotted one wall, at the height of a man's head, where an ink bottle had exploded-the memento, according to Lincoln, of a disagreement between law students over a point of jurisprudence that would not yield to cold logic.

Papers were strewn everywhere, as if by a prairie wind: on the table, on the floor, on the five scattered cane-bottomed chairs and the ragged sofa where the senior partner of the firm liked to stretch out his full length, his head on the arm of the sofa. His legs were too long to fit the settee, so Lincoln would rest his feet on the raveling cane seat of a chair. There he reclined every morning, after arriving at nine, clean-shaven. And he would read, aloud. He read newspapers and books, always aloud, much to the annoyance of his partner, who found the high, tuneful voice, with its chuckling interludes and asides, a distraction from the warrants and writs and invoices. Herndon once asked Lincoln why he had to read aloud, and the forty-eight-year-old ex-Congressman explained: "Two senses catch the idea: first I see what I read; second I hear it, and therefore I can remember it better." Lincoln-not boasting-said that his mind was like steel: the gray matter was difficult to scratch, but once engraved on it, information was nearly impossible to efface. According to Herndon, Lincoln did not read many books, but whatever he did read he absorbed completely.

The law students got to Whitman first. Perhaps they had read about Leaves of Grass in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, where the eminent Charles Eliot Norton had announced that words "banished from polite society are here employed without reserve" and called the book a curious mixture of "Yankee Transcendentalism and New York rowdyism"; or they might have caught notice of it in the New York Criterion, where the dyspeptic Rufus Griswold referred to it as "this gathering of muck." In America's most influential literary journal, the North American Review, Edward Everett Hale rhapsodized about Leaves of Grass. And in May 1856 no less an authority than Fanny Fern-the highest-paid columnist in the country-referred to Whitman in the New York Ledger as "this glorious Native American." The book was widely praised and condemned, much discussed, if not much purchased or read.

According to Henry Bascom Rankin, who was a student in the Lincoln-Herndon office in 1857, "discussions hot and extreme sprung up between office students and Mr. Herndon concerning its poetic merit." A few verses:

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning,

You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,

And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart . . .

I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself,

I tighten her all night to my thighs and lips.

Poetry indeed! These long, racy, unrhymed verses did not look like any poetry the provincial law students had ever seen, no matter what Emerson or the bluestocking Fanny Fern wrote.

The talk of Whitman that animated the law office during the unseasonably warm spring of 1857 relieved the furious, anguished discussion of the Supreme Court's recent decision about Dred Scott, which aroused Lincoln from a spell of political torpor. Yet even Scott's fate led them back to Leaves of Grass:

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinned with the ooze of my skin . . .

The argument over Whitman did not differ much in Springfield from the dispute in Boston and New York. Was this poetry? Then there arose the livelier controversy over the book's brazen immodesty. Was Leaves of Grass indecent? Many of the verses sounded shameless, unfit for mixed company. Take for example the anonymous woman watching twenty-eight young men bathing by the shore, who comes "Dancing and laughing along the beach" to caress their naked bellies:

They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,

They do not think whom they souse with spray.

Was this Walt Whitman actually depicting a sexual act outlawed everywhere but in the debaters' dreams? It was shocking, pornographic. The men wondered whether such a book should be allowed on library shelves, or in homes where women and children might casually be seduced by it. Who was responsible for the corruption of morals: the author, the printer, the Chicago bookseller, or buyers of Leaves of Grass like Billy Herndon?

The students wrangled, and read the poems aloud, with Herndon sometimes acting as Whitman's advocate, other times as an impartial referee. Visitors dropping by, such as Dr. Newton Bateman, superintendent of schools, would join in the discussion provoked by lines such as:

A woman waits for me-she contains all, nothing is lacking,

Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking.

Lincoln worked quietly at his desk, raking his coarse hair with his long fingers, or he came and went, apparently oblivious to the disturbance the new book was causing in the workplace. Having lost a year to politics, stumping for the Republican John Frémont during the presidential campaign of 1856, advocating "free soil, free labor and free men," he had a lot of catching up to do in his neglected law practice. He was also having a spell of depression, "the hypochondria," as it was called in those days. This mood afflicted him periodically, often between periods of intense business or creative work. So he turned his back on the students, and Herndon and Dr. Bateman, as they challenged one another's taste in literature and questioned one another's morals, reading passages of Leaves of Grass and attacking or defending Whitman as the spirit, or the letter, moved them. The poet was utterly uninhibited, whether he was describing himself, or addressing the President:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,

Disorderly, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, breeding,

No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women, or apart from

them-no more modest than immodest

. . .

I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart

of on the same terms.

Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President?

It is a trifle-they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.

One day, after the debaters had departed, a few clerks, including Henry Rankin, remained, copying documents. Lincoln rose from his desk. This was always a sight because sitting down Lincoln appeared to be of average height, but his limbs were so disproportionately long that when he unfolded and stretched them it was as if a giant had sprung up out of a common man.

"Quite a surprise occurred," Rankin recalled, in a memoir written years later. Lincoln picked up the book of poems that had been disturbing the peace and began to read, as he rarely did, in devoted silence, for more than half an hour by the Regulator clock. When the pressure of perusing the poetry silently became more than Lincoln could endure, he thumbed back to the first pages of Leaves of Grass and began reading aloud, in that tenderly expressive voice with the Kentucky accent and continual undercurrent of whimsical humor.

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

The light of afternoon streamed through the office windows, gilding the dust motes.

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes-the shelves are crowded with perfumes,

I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,

It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,

Echos, ripples, buzzed whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch, vine

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart . . .

"His rendering," Rankin remembered, "revealed a charm of new life in Whitman's versification." Here and there Lincoln found a verse too coarse, a line or phrase he felt the poet might have avoided. But on the whole he "commended the new poet's verses for their virility, freshness, unconventional sentiments, and unique forms of expression."

Lincoln put the book back down on the office table, desiring Herndon to leave Whitman there where he might not get lost in the tide of books, newspapers, and documents. "Time and again, when Lincoln came in, or was leaving, he would pick it up, as if to glance at it for only a moment, but instead he would often settle down in a chair and never stop reading aloud such verses or pages as he fancied."

Once Lincoln made the mistake of taking Leaves of Grass home. The next morning he brought the book back, grimly remarking that he "had barely saved it from being purified in fire by the women." This anecdote goes a long way toward explaining the politician's lifelong reticence about the poet and his book. Of course, by "the women" he meant his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who controlled nearly everything that went on inside the big, two-story house at the corner of Eighth and Jackson where they lived with their three boys.

It is uncertain what verses or pages Lincoln fancied. The feuds among Lincoln's early biographers, struggling over the soul of the martyred President, have few parallels in American letters. In 1928 a rival biographer, Reverend William E. Barton, in a popular book that took pains to disassociate Lincoln from Whitman, challenged Rankin's memory. As early as 1932, however, the scholar Charles Glicksberg, in Whitman and the Civil War, declared that Barton's book was "marked throughout by a hostile spirit toward Whitman" and discredited Barton's premise that Lincoln was unaware of Whitman's existence. Modern scholars, such as Whitman biographers Gay Wilson Allen and Jerome Loving, and David Herbert Donald, who wrote books on both Herndon and Lincoln, likewise have accepted Rankin's story in spite of Reverend Barton.

One of the points that authenticate Rankin's account is his dating of Lincoln's encounter with Leaves of Grass. Only in that year, two years after the first publication of Whitman's poems in 1855, would the ex-Congressman and future President Lincoln have had the freedom and inclination to study such a literary curiosity. Only in 1857 could the reading of Whitman have produced such an impact on his oratory.

Billy Herndon, who knew Lincoln better perhaps than any man in Lincoln's day, said he was the rare man without vices, but with a flagrant disregard for propriety, "the appropriateness of things." He was so heedless of his appearance that he forgot to comb his coarse black hair. He cared so little about clothing that sometimes he wouldn't wear this piece or that. After all, he was raised on a farm in Kentucky, barefoot. "He never could see the harm in wearing a sack-coat instead of a swallowtail to an evening party, nor could he realize the offense of telling a vulgar yarn if a preacher happened to be present."

Copyright© 2004 by Daniel Mark Epstein
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Daniel Mark Epstein


Q. How long have you been working on this book?

A. Most of my life. I cannot remember when I had not read Walt Whitman's poetry, and it has become as familiar to me over the years as Shakespeare or the Bible. In the 1980s I wrote a thumbnail biography of Lincoln, and during that time I read most of the major writings of Lincoln as well as the significant modern biographies. Putting the two greatest American figures of the 19th century together in one book occurred to me about three years ago; the writing itself took nearly two years.

Q. How did you get the idea?

A. I knew that Whitman had written a great deal about Lincoln. It was the discovery of Henry Rankin's Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, with its eye-witness account of Lincoln reading aloud from Leaves of Grass in 1857 that made me realize there was a book to be written here. I knew that 1858 saw a dramatic development in Lincoln's rhetoric. So I went directly to the speeches and compared them to Whitman's poems. The influence was immediately apparent, and startling. Each man had influenced the other.

Q. You have a reputation for capturing a sense of place in your books: Chicago in the roaring 20s in Nat King Cole, pre-World War I Greenwich Village in your Millay biography. How were you able to bring to life Washington, D.C. during the Civil War?

A. I grew up in Washington. When I was a child in the the 1950s I walked the streets that Lincoln and Whitman walked, when many of the buildings looked much as they did to those heroes. So, more than in any of my books, the sense ofplace, weather, architecture and atmosphere came naturally. Then of course I owe a great deal to the 1860 maps of the city, contemporary travel guides, and the hundreds of Washington newspapers I read from cover to cover at the Library of Congress.

Q. Some Whitman scholars have called The Leaves of Grass an inherently political work, identifying the roots of democracy in Whitman's sense of the common man, his egalitarianism and exuberant all-inclusiveness. To what extent do you believe this to be true?

A. With Whitman perhaps more than any other poet, the line between politics and "spiritual philosophy" is a very fine one. His first "free-verse" poem, called "Blood Money" written in 1850, was actually a protest against slavery in the territories. And Whitman even claimed that the erotic love poems in Calamus were political, and had to do with the love between persons being the glue that held together the democratic Union.

It is important to distinguish between the various editions and incarnations of Leaves of Grass in discussing their "political" content. The editions of 1855 and 1856, in defining the "self" and the ideal society, all-inclusive and egalitarian, are highly political. Later editions, as they include love poems (Calamus), war poems and elegies (Drum-taps) may be appreciated without concern for their politics.

Q. In what way were Lincoln and Whitman's visions of America similar?

A. Both men believed in the principles embodied in Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence: that all men and women are created equal and are entitled to equal opportunities under the law. They both believed that the founding fathers stood against the expansion of slavery and that the peculiar institution would sink of its own weight and perish if it did not expand into the territories. And both believed that the American genius of the mid-nineteenth century, and the English language, were destined to lead the world–and the ideals of democracy–into the next millennium.

Q. Whitman is often heralded as New York's poet, saluting every man and woman and child on the street, celebrating the bustle of Manahatta, Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry. But Whitman once told biographers "I was always between two loves- I wanted to be in New York; I had to be in Washington." What kind of an impact did Washington have on Whitman? Why did he feel he had to be there?

A. Whitman had a journalist's instinct to be at the heart of the action. Too old to serve in battle, the closest he could get to the war was the military hospitals–of which there was an extraordinary concentration in Washington–the White House, and the Halls of Congress. I believe that finally he felt he had to be in Washington because Lincoln was there; Whitman felt an extraordinary affinity with Lincoln.

Whitman's experience in the military hospitals humbled him. The man who had glorified the "self" in Leaves of Grass discovered, in human suffering and sacrifice, values more important than the vaunting self.

Q. How was Lincoln's oratory changed by Whitman's poetry?


A. It is evident from the three public speeches Lincoln gave from June 1857-June 1858 (the last being the "House Divided" speech) that Lincoln learned from Whitman to raise his oratory from the level of rhetoric to dramatic poetry. Lincoln's pre-Whitman speeches are marked by great powers of persuasion and storytelling; but they do not employ the figures of speech and poetic rhythms that make great literature and move audiences profoundly. The lyricism for which we now remember Lincoln begins in 1857, after his reading of Leaves of Grass. It was this lyricism, as employed in the "House Divided" speech, that got him elected President.

Q. To that end, the poet Kenneth Koch once said that one has to stand on a chair to read Whitman properly? Do you agree?

A. That was Kenneth being Kenneth, and very funny, but there is a wonderful truth in it. Whitman is BIG, a man with big ideas and big passions. We must become somehow larger ourselves in order to read him properly.

Q. For whom was there more of a divide between personal and intellectual life, Lincoln or Whitman?

A. For Whitman certainly. Whitman, for all his frankness in his poetry, was a closeted gay man of the 19th century; therefore there was an inexorable split between his personal and his intellectual life. Plied for an admission of his homosexuality by Edward Carpenter and Oscar Wilde who believed an honest statement from Whitman would be liberating to others, Whitman continually refused. While it might be said that Lincoln's career was dramatically divided from his tragic personal life–due to his wife's mental instability–his intellectual life, as revealed in his speeches and letters, seems to me to be a clear expression of his inner, personal life.

Q. Whitman's verse, which was not even considered poetry by many, was both unconventional in its form and content highly controversial. How did Whitman challenge Lincoln's sense of convention? And how did he inspire controversy?

A. I'm not sure that Whitman really did challenge Lincoln's sense of convention; Lincoln was already about as unconventional as a nineteenth century lawyer could be. There were off-color words in Leaves of Grass that surprised Lincoln. Perhaps the sight of these words may have broadened the candidate's sense of what could and could not be expressed in public. Whitman mostly inspired controversy by writing candidly about sex. And right after reading Leaves of Grass, Lincoln introduced some shocking references to sex between slavemasters and slaves in his speeches against Douglas.

Q. Both the President and the poet suffered great opposition in their careers. Who was ultimately more of an idealist, Lincoln or Whitman?

A. Whitman was by far the greatest idealist. He believed, like Shelley, that poets were the true legislators of humankind. He believed Lincoln was a great man when 90% of Americans thought the President a failure. He believed the Union would win the war when few others did. Lincoln shared Whitman's political idealism, but the President had the calculating shrewdness of a practical politician and manager of men. Unlike Whitman, Lincoln was never blinded by his ideals.

Q. Whitman's poetry celebrates himself and every human being; it is both highly individualistic and speaks powerfully to all Americans. How did the War for the Union affect Whitman's sense of individualism? Did his sense of collective patriotism win out over his spirit of individualism?

A. In the short term, as I have mentioned, Whitman was chastened by his experience in Washington during the war. He came to submerge his personality in the larger experience of humanity. His elegy for Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is the perfect expression of the poet's new humility, as he gives the finest lines in the poem to the hermit thrush. But remember, only a poet of robust ego could write a poem as sweeping and heroic as that one. He had changed, but he was still Whitman. And twenty years after the war, as we see in his performance at Madison Square Theatre in New York, he was as vain as ever.

Q. Has your own sensibility as a poet informed your reading of Whitman?

A. Of course there are a number of things I understand about Whitman's art that only a practicing poet could know. These are mostly technical matters, such as the concealed quatrain form in "O Captain, My Captain!" And then I can often tell when his attention wanders, or when he is allegorizing an experience from his life. But on the whole I would say that Whitman has informed my sensibility far more than my sensibility has informed my reading of Whitman.

Q. Which of the two heroes is the greater, in your estimation?

A. Oh, you put me in an impossible position! I think that my book demonstrates that both men were indispensable. We could not have had one without the other; our world would not be as good as it is if we had not been so fortunate as to have both.
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Reading Group Guide

1. In what way are Lincoln and Whitman’s views of democracy similar?

2. How did Whitman influence Lincoln’s oration?

3. Tending to wounded soldiers in Washington had a profound affect on Whitman. How did the War for the Union affect his sense of individualism?

4. Did his sense of collective patriotism win out over his spirit of individualism?

5. Who has left a more profound legacy on America, Lincoln or Whitman?

6. Lincoln wrote all of his own speeches and relied on public speechmaking as a means of conveying his political ideology. How has technology and media changed the way we perceive our politicians and their political ideals today?

From the Hardcover edition.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2009

    A Good Read

    I learned more about Lincoln than I knew before. The book did not chronicle his life but gave you a sense of what he was thinking. It made me want to read more about Lincoln i.e. a biography. I knew little about Whitman except his poetry. The book provides a fine portrait of Whitman and his best poetry. The book also gave a great sense of Washington DC at the time and of America in general during the Civil War.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2004

    too good to put down

    this book about the friendship between the most important poet (walt whitman) and president (abraham lincoln) that america has yet produced is just so amazingly engaging, enjoyable, and fascinating that i paradoxically do not want to read it too quickly or else it will end and i never want it to end. in reading it, i feel as i am right there, with those two great men, witnessing them as they really were. a truly spactacular work. the author should strongy consider writing similar books about other great american literary/historical figures.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2004

    Perfect blend of poetry and history

    This was a wonderfully written book about two visionaries - Lincoln (political visionary) and Whitman (literary visionary). The book was a perfect blend of historical commentary and literary criticism. Good read! Go get it!

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