To paraphrase our friend Peter Schramm, we are proud that we know why we love Abraham Lincoln. As our teacher and leader, Lincoln saved the United States, and therewith freedom, in word and deed, and in words that were themselves mighty deeds. Today is his birthday and we celebrate his memory.
We tried to take a glimpse into Lincoln’s personal greatness through our piece “A genius for friendship.” The essay traces the theme of friendship in Lincoln’s life from Lincoln’s arrival in New Salem, Illinois as a penniless young man in 1831 through his most famous trial as a practicing lawyer in May 1858. The following month he was nominated by the Illinois Republican party to run for the senate against Stephen Douglas and gave the great “house divided” speech that made him a national figure almost overnight.
Today’s Wall Street Journal takes the occasion of Lincoln’s birthday to publish James Swanson’s review of a new book by the poet Daniel Mark Epstein on Lincoln and Whitman: “Two comrades, one departing.”
I have read Whitman’s poetry and Lincoln’s speeches religiously over the past 25 years, but never found a connection between Lincoln and Whitman other than Whitman’s celebrated poems on Lincoln following Lincoln’s death. The review suggests that, although they never met, they had a relationship through which they affected each other to some notable degree.
Unlike many Americans, Whitman appears to have recognized Lincoln’s greatness in life. Like many Americans, Whitman meditated deeply on the meaning of Lincoln’s life and death following Lincoln’s assassination, which temporarily stunned him into silence.
The review closes on this extraordinarily moving scene of Whitman publicly recalling Lincoln’s memory near the end of Whitman’s life:
Mr. Epstein ends his book in 1887, on the night that Whitman, then a literary elder statesman, delivered a Lincoln lecture to a New York crowd that included Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie and Gen. William T. Sherman. Whitman transported his audience back to April 1865, then pronounced a benediction on the man he loved but never knew: “precious to this Union — precious to Democracy — unspeakably and forever precious.” The audience shouted for a recitation of “O Captain! My Captain!,” another post-assassination poem [in addition to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the poem in which Whitman had recovered his poetic voice]. Whitman obliged but “it seemed,” Mr. Epstein notes, “that he was not speaking so much as singing, mournfully.”
There was more. A girl crossed the stage to offer Whitman a basket of lilacs. Sobbing, Whitman embraced the child as he inhaled once more the scent of the spring of 1865. “In that moment,” Mr. Epstein writes, Lincoln and Whitman, at last, “were united.”