In Word and Deed

Baltimore poet/biographer Daniel Mark Epstein paints a compelling portrait of Lincoln and Whitman as contemporaries, as visionaries and as Americans

January 21, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Some poets are so finely attuned to their surroundings that their writing can border on prophecy. A striking example of this occurred in 1857, when Walt Whitman, pondering the future of the nation he loved, conjured the image of the "Redeemer President of These States."

In a political tract called The Eighteenth Presidency!, Whitman yearned for a new kind of leader. He'd be pleased, he wrote, to see "some heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman come down from the West ... and walk into the Presidency, dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast and arms." He called for that president to come "out of the real West, the log hut, the clearing, the woods, the prairie, the hillside."

As he wrote those words, Whitman knew almost nothing of Abraham Lincoln, then a lawyer and local politician in Springfield, Ill. The poet had summoned an Honest Abe from his own unconscious before the American public knew it would need one.

That passage was an early sign of a spiritual kinship between Whitman and Lincoln that has fascinated scholars for years. The two never met, but the poet watched the politician closely over the years, sometimes in person, and wrote about him often. Many have wondered: Did the influential Whitman have a similar impact on America's most literary president?

In a new book, Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, the acclaimed Baltimore poet/biographer Daniel Mark Epstein answers vividly. His work of history, three years in the making, cuts back and forth as compellingly as a good novel between evocative accounts of each man. In the end, the book places its two subjects in a uniquely sharp perspective. It also has an effect similar to the one they worked, offering readers a chance to consider anew, in a time of historic change, what it means to be an American.

Epstein, 55, is uniquely suited to the task. A poet whose work appears in publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The Paris Review, he began publishing at age 11, starting a career that has produced seven volumes of poetry and won numerous awards. In the 1970s, not long after he moved to Baltimore from his native Washington, Epstein (pronounced "Ep-stine") developed an interest in writing dramatic monologues that brought historical figures to life.

That interest led Epstein, in time, to the craft of biography. In books on figures as diverse as evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, singer Nat King Cole and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Epstein's keen eye for detail humanized historical epochs.

True to the poet's nature, he did it his own way. "I'm not a trained historian," says the bespectacled, silver-haired Epstein in his quiet office near the Rotunda shopping center. "I had to teach myself the nuts and bolts of historical research, and that has been fascinating. When people ask me, as they inevitably do, what my subjects have in common, I give them a simple answer: I look for great stories. I don't think I could spend two or three years with a person I don't admire - that wouldn't be much fun - but more important, the life of each person I write about makes for excellent narrative."

Like any modern American poet, Epstein encounters the work and influence of Whitman more or less constantly, and as a history buff he had always found Lincoln fascinating, particularly the question of how he managed to transform a natural facility for homespun prose into the sort of oratory that would make him a figure of national importance. Each man's life had a classical narrative shape, he says - Lincoln's a tragic one, Whitman's that of a romantic wanderer - but it wasn't till Epstein came across the writings of William Herndon, a bibliophile who was Lincoln's law partner, and other writings by Henry Rankin, their clerk, that he was sure he had a book on his hands.

Scholars had long debated whether Lincoln had read Leaves of Grass, the influential epic poem for which Whitman is best remembered. Epstein found evidence that was hard to refute. The future president, he learned, habitually arrived at his law office early, stretched out his long legs, "rest(ed) his feet on the raveling cane seat of a chair," and read aloud from newspapers and books. He did this partly in order to fix in his mind the nuances of the prose he read - and did so "much to the annoyance of his partner, who found the high, tuneful voice, with its chuckling interludes and asides" a distraction from their daily work.

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