Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War isn’t going well at all. His young son, Willie, has died, devastating Lincoln and his wife. At night, alone, the President visits the cemetery, retrieves his son’s body from its crypt and holds it in his arms.
The President doesn’t know it, but he is surrounded by ghosts or spirits. They are denizens of the bardo:
Used loosely, “bardo” is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan [Buddhist] tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena [Wikipedia].
The phenomena the ghosts experience are strange to say the least. Their incorporeal selves take on bizarre shapes, they are merged with other ghostly beings against their will, they enter Lincoln’s body and know his thoughts and memories. They sometimes disappear amid sound and fury, presumably emerging somewhere else. The conversations they have with each other make up most of the novel.
The more I read Lincoln in the Bardo, the more I enjoyed it. It’s understandable that it won last year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.
The brilliant author Garry Wills did a public service when he wrote this book about Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. Chapters on 19th century oratory, the “rural cemetery” movement and Lincoln’s choice of words provide context, but those aren’t the parts of the book that make it important.
Wills’s principal thesis is that Lincoln’s focus on the idea of equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) changed our understanding of the Constitution and America itself:
The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln so feckless. The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind. By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people, dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America (146-147).
As originally written, the Constitution not only accepted the existence of slavery but gave preferential treatment to the slave states. Lincoln, however, forcefully proclaimed that “our new nation” was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. Furthermore, he challenged us to continue “our unfinished work” to insure that America’s government would truly be, by implication, of all the people, by all the people and for all the people. Lincoln’s brief remarks at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few months after the cataclysmic Battle of Gettysburg, helped make our country a different and better place. Garry Wills’s excellent book explains why and how that happened.
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)