Here's an interesting fact about the two of the most influential Americans of the 19th century Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, though linked in many ways, never actually met. Does that matter? From the standpoint of history, not really. In a fascinating new book, writer Daniel Mark Epstein argues that, although they were not personally acquainted, the two men had a profound effect on one another and on their nation.
Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington offers an analysis of their historic contributions to society and a discussion of their literary connections. The book opens before the Civil War, when Lincoln first read Whitman's radical book of poems, Leaves of Grass, which his law partner brought into their office in 1857. Lincoln privately complimented the poet's freshness and vivacity of language and sentiment. Although he never publicly expressed his admiration for Whitman's poems, their influence imbues his own speeches and other writing, Epstein argues. Of course, Lincoln's influence on Whitman was massive. The president's brooding, care-worn face and his great burden inspired the poet, who served as a nurse in Washington's military hospitals. The two men passed so frequently in the streets that they began to exchange friendly nods, a ritual that led to the poet professing "love" for Lincoln.
Epstein poignantly recalls Whitman's experience near the end of the war, when the relevance of his collection, Drum Taps, was displaced by the South's surrender and by Lincoln's assassination. He examines the creation of Whitman's great eulogy to his fallen hero, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and follows Whitman into the 1880s, when he began lecturing about Lincoln to enthusiastic audiences.
Epstein's book serves double duty as an engaging wartime history and an insightful work of literary analysis, capturing an era and two great men who helped to shape it. Jason Emerson is a former National Park Service park ranger at the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, and a published poet.