Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington by Daniel Mark Epstein

Abraham Lincoln read Leaves of Grass in 1857, when he was still a lawyer in Illinois. The author of Lincoln and Whitman argues that reading Walt Whitman’s poetry made Lincoln’s speeches more poetic.

Whitman was living in New York City in 1860 when Lincoln gave his famous Cooper Union speech, but he didn’t see Lincoln in person until January 1861, when the President-elect visited New York on his way to his inauguration.

During the Civil War, Whitman spent much of his time ministering to wounded soldiers in Washington, not far from the White House. He often saw the President traveling around the city. It appears that the President noticed Whitman occasionally, since the poet had a distinctive appearance and often watched the President’s carriage drive by. On one occasion, Whitman observed Lincoln in the White House from a few feet away, but they did not meet. There is also a story, not necessarily true, that Lincoln saw Whitman walking by the White House one day and was told that this was the famous poet.

Whitman was visiting New York when Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln’s death greatly affected Whitman. He had studied the President closely and felt a deep affection for him. His poem O Captain! My Captain! was written in response to the assassination.

Lincoln and Whitman ends in 1887 with Whitman giving a dramatic reading before a celebrity-packed audience in New York City, in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of Lincoln’s death.

Lincoln and Whitman did lead parallel lives for a time, although Lincoln clearly affected Whitman much more than the other way around. Lincoln and Whitman mixes large-scale history and politics with these men’s daily lives and personal relationships. There is some poetry too, mostly by the poet.  (9/30/12)

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