- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

Daniel Mark Epstein, a Baltimore writer who has published seven volumes of poetry, three plays and three biographies, has taken a new course in this book. His “Lincoln and Whitman” is what Archibald MacLeish said a quarter-century ago about “John Brown’s Body,” that great poetic volume by Stephen Vincent Benet: “a deftly woven web of lives … seen and examined in the white lens of war.”

Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman never quite met, although they saw each other often during the Civil War. As Mr. Epstein says, Whitman became a president-watcher in wartime Washington and would wait on 14th Street on summer evenings to see the president riding north from the White House to spend the night at his summer residence, the Soldiers’ Home. The figure of Whitman became familiar to the president, who would nod or wave to him.

However, there already had been, it seems, a more significant relationship between the two men.

• • •

In 1857, in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, bought a copy of Whitman’s first volume of poetry, “Leaves of Grass,” and took it to their office. Henry Bascom Rankin, a young man reading law there, recalled many years later how one afternoon Lincoln took up the book, read silently for half an hour and then began to read aloud what Mr. Epstein calls Whitman’s long, racy, unrhymed verses.

Rankin said Lincoln came back to the book other days and that one evening he took it home. The next morning he brought it back, saying “he had barely saved it from being purified in fire by the women.” Apparently Mary Todd Lincoln had no liking for Whitman’s bold, free and sometimes homoerotic poetry.

Mr. Epstein, poet as much as biographer, takes what we may accept as poetic license when he goes on to find that Whitman’s poetry had a deep effect on the idiom of Lincoln’s speeches after he had read and reread “Leaves of Grass.”

In June 1857, Lincoln delivered a long, passionate response to Sen. Stephen Douglas on the Dred Scott decision and the question of slavery in Kansas. Mr. Epstein calls Lincoln’s speech Whitmanesque; he writes that Lincoln appears to have been under the poet’s spell. However, as the author notes, it cannot be proved that Lincoln ever read Whitman in Springfield. The Rev. William E. Barton, author of a 1928 work on Lincoln and Whitman, challenged Rankin’s account.

• • •

Perhaps it would be most true to say that by 1857 Lincoln had come to realize the need to work long and hard on his public statements. The following year, he gave his first lecture on discoveries and inventions.

This was, Mr. Epstein says, a kind of prose poem; it also reflected much research by Lincoln. He worked still harder on his 1860 speech at Cooper Union in New York — the speech, although Epstein does not mention it, launched Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency.

It seems at least possible that “Leaves of Grass” had as great an effect on Lincoln’s fine use of language as his constitutional and legal studies did on his convincing arguments at Cooper Union.

The effect Lincoln had on Whitman is easier to establish. Whitman had his first glimpse of Lincoln when the president-elect stopped in New York in February 1861 on his way to Washington. Soon the poet began jotting down questions in his notebook that he imagined putting to the president when someday they would meet — questions, Mr. Epstein says, that in a sense he already had put to the future president five years earlier in “Leaves of Grass”: “Who are you that would talk to America? Have you studied out my land, its idioms and men?” Lincoln, for Whitman as for many others, was the country’s great hope.

Whitman labored long hours as a kind of volunteer nurse in the grim military hospitals of Washington during the Civil War. He also held low-paying government jobs, first in the Army Paymaster’s Office and later as a copyist in the Office of Indian Affairs. He had wanted something better, and at the end of 1862, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written letters on his behalf to Sen. Charles Sumner, Secretary of State William H. Seward and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.

It seems a little curious, although Mr. Epstein does not say so, that Walt Whitman, a well-known figure in America by the time the war came, did not go directly to Lincoln, as so many office-seekers did. In any case, what Emerson called Whitman’s marked eccentricities, and what others saw as immoral writing and behavior, did not work in his favor.

Though Whitman did not get to know the president, he did befriend Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay. He went to the White House on Halloween evening in 1864 to see Hay, who had promised him train tickets to go back to New York to electioneer and to vote in the presidential election the following week. As Hay gave Whitman the tickets, the poet could see the president standing with a friend a few steps away. Yet they did not meet, nor did they ever do so, unless Whitman shook Lincoln’s hand — Mr. Epstein doubts he did — at the White House reception after Lincoln was inaugurated for a second time in March 1865.

• • •

Whitman was in Brooklyn the following month when the president was assassinated. He managed to stop the printing of his new volume of poetry, “Drum-Taps,” to add a quickly written poem. Later in April, he began making notes for a longer elegy. Mr. Epstein quotes some of those notes, and they are interesting, but we wish he would give us the full text of the great final work, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d.”

And then — I thank you, Mr. Epstein — he does just that, and we can read all 21 sections of the elegy in this book. The elegy was a far greater work than Whitman’s other but better known Lincoln tribute, the sad ballad that begins “O Captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done.”

Whitman eventually tired of being asked to recite this, and in exasperation wrote to a friend, “I say, Damn My Captain.”

The book ends in April 1887, on a day when the body of Abraham Lincoln is to be exhumed and reburied in Springfield, and in New York, Walt Whitman, old and sick at 68, is to deliver a memorial Lincoln lecture.

In Springfield, the coffin is opened; the president’s features remain stunningly lifelike.

In Manhattan, many prominent Americans have come to Madison Square Theatre for the lecture: writers Mark Twain, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Frank Stockton and Edward Eggleston; sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; and John Hay, then working with his former White House colleague John Nicolay on a 10-volume biography of Lincoln.

The old poet rose and for 50 minutes produced drama, beauty and pity as he spoke of the dead president. In the end, he wept, and the audience wept; their tears, Mr. Epstein says, “were as much for the fallen president as for the grieving poet. In that moment, the men were united.”

One can take exception to just a few things in this book. Mr. Epstein suggests that Lincoln might have made a lasting contribution to American letters “alone among our presidents.” What of Grant’s memoirs? Also, our author should have made clear earlier in the book that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves, but only those in Confederate-held areas.

• • •

Among minor figures mentioned is John James Piatt, who Mr. Epstein says must have made a good impression in a White House receiving line because Lincoln recommended him for a commission as consul. What perhaps counted more was Piatt’s 1862 poem of adulation calling Lincoln “The Anointed One.”

As noted, we do not really know whether Whitman influenced Lincoln’s prose, but Mr. Epstein does no violence to our history to show it may have happened.

Peter Bridges’ most recent book is “Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel.”

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