Lincoln and Whitman: 'elective affinity'

January 25, 2004|By Mike Pride | Mike Pride,Special to the Sun

Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, by Daniel Mark Epstein. Ballantine Books. 400 pages. $24.95.

The premise of Daniel Mark Epstein's new book is that the two great voices of mid-19th-century America sang in harmony and that the harmony was no accident.

Leaves of Grass, Whitman's major poetic work, unlocked the poetic power of Abraham Lincoln, Epstein argues, and a love of Lincoln provided Whitman with a second act after his masterpiece.

That Whitman adored Lincoln -- "I love the president personally," he wrote in his diary in 1863 -- and wrote movingly about him is well-established. That Whitman influenced Lincoln's oratory is more mystic chord than solid fact.

Nevertheless, 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 book 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.

Central to Epstein's argument is that Billy Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in Springfield, Ill., bought Leaves of Grass in 1857 and that Lincoln took it home, read it and absorbed language and cadences that raised his own political rhetoric to full force.

Epstein's close reading of A House Divided and other Lincoln speeches turns up phrases and syntax that seem beholden to Leaves. "Lincoln had turned a corner back in 1857," Epstein asserts. "He had developed the power to raise his oratory to the level of dramatic poetry whenever the occasion called for it."

Epstein closely follows the two men from 1863 to Lincoln's death. As much as anything else, it was Lincoln's presence that drew Whitman to the capital to volunteer in Union war hospitals. The two men were "Elective Affinities," Epstein writes, using a phrase favored by Whitman, "the poet as public servant, the President as dramatic poet. The compounds of the two personalities 'exchanged' essential elements."

The problem with Epstein's argument is that Lincoln never really acknowledged Whitman or Leaves of Grass. Whitman went out of his way to see the president often but could not muster the courage to speak to him or even shake his hand. Lincoln seemed to recognize Whitman and nodded cordially to him but did not seek him out.

This is not to say Epstein is wrong to suggest that Whitman's poetry influenced Lincoln's political speeches. Indeed, the two men had plain affinities.

Both rose from humble roots and appealed to common sensibilities. Neither entirely escaped the Victorian stamp of their age, but both succeeded in becoming original American voices.

Yet Epstein's premise that Lincoln gained new rhetorical power after reading Leaves of Grass seems overdrawn. From Shakespeare to the backwoods talk of his early life to the homespun newspaper humorists of his day, Lincoln loved and absorbed words and stories.

It was a habit that suited him to his destiny. But the forces that raised his voice to meet the hour were the monumental issues of the Civil War. The times made the man.

That said, whatever moved a fine and careful observer like Epstein to choose this subject is an idea to be thankful for. His book is a treat for anyone who loves to ponder the many facets of these two great Americans.

Epstein is at his best in analyzing "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Whitman's Lincoln elegy. The poem is printed in full, all 21 sections and 208 lines of it, before Epstein explicates it and puts it in the context of Whitman's life. Whatever Whitman meant by "Elective Affinities," they are surely present in this poem.

Mike Pride is the editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where he has worked since 1978. A former Nieman fellow at Harvard University, he has earned the National Press Foundation's editor of the year award. With Mark Travis, he is the co-author of My Brave Boys: To War With Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth.

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