Poet and biographer Epstein (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, 2001, etc.) brings insight from both his specialties to bear on two defining figures of the Civil War era.
Whitman and Lincoln never met, although the two were evidently in the same room on several occasions as the president greeted visitors to the White House while Whitman watched from an unobtrusive distance. Yet Epstein argues that the two exerted a powerful influence on one another. Lincoln reportedly read Leaves of Grass before he began his political career, and the author finds traces of Whitman’s rhetoric in Lincoln’s speeches. In Whitman’s case, the influence has long been recognized. Several poems pay tribute to the fallen leader, and in his latter years Whitman lectured on his memories of Lincoln and on the president’s place in the nation’s history. In this dual biography, Epstein undertakes to suggest a closer connection. He does so largely by connecting the two men’s lives in Washington during the war years, when Whitman served as a volunteer nurse to wounded Union and Confederate soldiers, supporting himself with clerical jobs for various governmental agencies. The heart of the book concerns Whitman’s nursing of the wounded soldiers, for whom he felt a strong empathy. (One of them became, for a time, his lover.) His volume of war poetry, Drum Taps, grew out of his direct experience of the conflict’s human cost. Whitman frequently observed Lincoln traveling around the district and was part of the crowd for several official appearances, including the Second Inaugural Address. Whether the shaggy bohemian poet made any impression on the busy president is anyone’s guess; Epstein understandably speculates, but generally manages not to overstate his case. He is at his best in his sensitive readings of Whitman’s poems about Lincoln, especially the elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Powerful and evocative.