“Abraham Lincoln,” Whitman’s concise little recollection of some of his encounters with the president during the war years in Washington, D.C., was written shortly before the assassination. It gives us an idea of just how different citizens’ encounters with their president were in the mid-nineteenth century, as Whitman recounts the numerous (often daily) encounters he had with Lincoln on the streets of the capital. There was always a military cortege accompanying him, but still the president and Whitman exchanged glances and “very cordial” bows as they passed. What strikes Whitman most about Lincoln is how “ordinary” he always looked—like “the commonest man.” And yet what haunts him is the president’s “dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes, &c., always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression”—a face, he says here (and he would repeat it many times), that escapes all the best efforts of photographers and painters to capture it. Lincoln’s face has a “deep, though subtle and indirect expression”: “There is something else there.” That “something else” was as undefinable as Whitman’s vague phrase. He tries to name it in “No Good Portrait of Lincoln” but again comes up short: “the peculiar color, the lines of it, the eyes, mouth, expression, &c.” That “peculiar color” in the president’s “dark brown face” suggested, perhaps, a racial darkening of the nation that Whitman was experiencing and often commented on during the last year of the war as thousands of emancipated slaves made their way to the capital, turning it into a truly biracial city. It’s as if American racial history was somehow inscribing itself on Lincoln’s face. The poet and biographer Daniel Mark Epstein describes what he calls “the very peculiar matter of the president’s skin” as Lincoln’s funeral cortege passed through Pennsylvania coal country, where his face surprisingly turned black, requiring morticians to apply a white chalky paste to it so that the face would not appear black to those who viewed the open casket in New York. Whitman sensed that Lincoln’s face embodied, almost mysteriously, the nation’s turmoil and its transformation.
Whitman did not start out as a great supporter of Lincoln, and the poet’s only mention of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation is an offhand comment about how the proclamation dominated the morning’s newspapers but was met with “phlegmatic coolness all through Washington,” where “little allusion [was] made to it in the public places of the city.” But as Whitman saw the president more frequently and traced the way the national trauma impressed itself into the president’s face and body, he gradually came to admire him and associate him fully with the preservation of the Union. Whitman acknowledges that Lincoln “had faults, and show’d them in the Presidency; but honesty, goodness, shrewdness, conscience, and (a new virtue, unknown to other lands, and hardly yet really known here, but the foundation and tie of all, as the future will grandly develop,) Unionism, in its truest and amplest sense, form’d the hard-pan of his character.” That is what Whitman saw in Lincoln that he believed no artist could capture, no photograph record: “hard-pan,” after all, is the impervious layer of soil just below the surface, what cannot be seen and yet what prevents the rains from soaking in. This quality of “Unionism”—this stalwart dedication to keeping the United States whole, to containing the nation’s contradictions, to not giving in to fracture and fragmentation—was the unbending quality just below the surface of Lincoln’s darkening face, the quality that made him, in Whitman’s mind, “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, Personality.”
Whitman’s comments on Lincoln’s “unionism” appear in “Murder of President Lincoln,” the poet’s first attempt to capture the drama of the assassination and assess its significance for the country’s future. These notes would become the heart of Whitman’s famous “Lincoln Lecture,” that he gave numerous times from 1879 through the 1880s, most famously at Madison Square Theatre in New York on April 14, 1887, when Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, John Hay, William Tecumseh Sherman, James Russell Lowell, Mary Mapes Dodge, and many other celebrities filled the auditorium (William Dean Howells was pressed into service to collect tickets). Whitman, aged and infirm, with “deep cut lines” now in his own face, presented his talk and guided the rapt audience back through the drama of the assassination, emphasizing how appropriate it was that the killing took place in a theatre, with an actor as the assassin, with the real national drama not being played out on the stage of Ford’s Theater but in the balcony, as the entire nation served as the continental stage for the playing out of a stormy drama that Lincoln, the main actor, led us safely through, before, inevitably it seemed, dying in the final scenes, just as the war ended. Whitman was in New York when the assassination occurred, but he pieced together his first-hand account from discussions with his young lover/companion, Peter Doyle, a former Confederate soldier, who was at Ford’s Theater that fateful night.
In Springfield, Illinois, on the same day that Whitman gave his lecture, exactly twenty-two years after John Wilkes Booth fired his fatal shot, the Lincoln Guard of Honor and numerous friends of the president gathered to witness the opening of Lincoln’s coffin. They reported that the corpse was in excellent condition but that the white paste on Lincoln’s face had turned to dust, leaving the president’s face black.
Aug. 12.—I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town. He never sleeps at the White House during the hot season, but has quarters at a healthy location, some three miles north of the city, the Soldiers' Home, a United States military establishment. I saw him this morning about 8 1/2 coming in to business, riding on Vermont avenue, near L street. The sight is a significant one, (and different enough from how and where I first saw him. *). He always has a company of twenty-five or thirty cavalry, with sabres drawn, and held upright over their shoulders. The party makes no great show in uniforms or horses. Mr. Lincoln, on the saddle, generally rides a good-sized easy-going gray horse, is dress'd in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty; wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man. A Lieutenant, with yellow straps, rides at his left, and following behind, two by two, come the cavalry men in their yellow-striped jackets. They are generally going at a slow trot, as that is the pace set them by the One they wait upon. The sabres and accoutrements clank, and the entirely unornamental cortege as it trots towards Lafayette square, arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes. I see very plainly ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes, &c., always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we always exchange bows, and very cordial ones.
Sometimes the President goes and comes in an open barouche. The cavalry always accompany him, with drawn sabres. Often I notice as he goes out evenings—and sometimes in the morning, when he returns early—he turns off and halts at the large and handsome residence of the Secretary of War, on K street, and holds conference there. If in his barouche, I can see from my window he does not alight, but sits in the vehicle, and Mr. Stanton comes out to attend him. Sometimes one of his sons, a boy of ten or twelve, accompanies him, riding at his right on a pony.
Earlier in the summer I occasionally saw the President and his wife, toward the latter part of the afternoon, out in a barouche, on a pleasure ride through the city. Mrs. Lincoln was dress'd in complete black, with a long crape veil. The equipage is of the plainest kind, only two horses, and they nothing extra. They pass'd me once very close, and I saw the President in the face fully, as they were moving slow, and his look, though abstracted, happen'd to be directed steadily in my eye. He bow'd and smiled, but far beneath his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures have caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man's face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.
The day, April 14, 1865, seems to have been a pleasant one throughout the whole land—the moral atmosphere pleasant too—the long storm, so dark, so fratricidal, full of blood and doubt and gloom, over and ended at last by the sun-rise of such an absolute National victory, and utter breaking-down of Secessionism—we almost doubted our own senses! Lee had capitulated beneath the apple-tree of Appomattax. The other armies, the flanges of the revolt, swiftly follow'd.......And could it really be, then? Out of all the affairs of this world of woe and passion, of failure and disorder and dismay, was there really come the confirm'd, unerring sign of plan, like a shaft of pure light—of rightful rule—of God?.......So the day, as I say, was propitious. Early herbage, early flowers, were out. (I remember where I was stopping at the time, the season being advanced, there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms. It never fails.)
But I must not dwell on accessories. The deed hastens. The popular afternoon paper of Washington, the little Evening Star, had spatter'd all over its third page, divided among the advertisements in a sensational manner in a hundred different places, The President and his Lady will be at the Theatre this evening.......(Lincoln was fond of the theatre. I have myself seen him there several times. I remember thinking how funny it was that He, in some respects, the leading actor in the greatest and stormiest drama known to real history's stage, through centuries, should sit there and be so completely interested and absorb'd in those human jack-straws, moving about with their silly little gestures, foreign spirit, and flatulent text.)
On this occasion the theatre was crowded, many ladies in rich and gay costumes, officers in their uniforms, many well known citizens, young folks, the usual clusters of gaslights, the usual magnetism of so many people, cheerful, with perfumes, music of violins and flutes—(and over all, and saturating all, that vast vague wonder, Victory, the Nation's Victory, the triumph of the Union, filling the air, the thought, the sense, with exhilaration more than all perfumes.)
The President came betimes, and, with his wife, witness'd the play, from the large stage-boxes of the second tier, two thrown into one, and profusely draped with the National flag. The acts and scenes of the piece—one of those singularly written compositions which have at least the merit of giving entire relief to an audience engaged in mental action or business excitements and cares during the day, as it makes not the slightest call on either the moral, emotional, esthetic, or spiritual nature—a piece, ('Our American Cousin,') in which, among other characters, so call'd, a Yankee, certainly such a one as was never seen, or the least like it ever seen, in North America, is introduced in England, with a varied fol-de-rol of talk, plot, scenery, and such phantasmagoria as goes to make up a modern popular drama—had progress'd through perhaps a couple of its acts, when in the midst of this comedy, or tragedy, or non-such, or whatever it is to be call'd, and to off-set it or finish it out, as if in Nature's and the Great Muse's mockery of those poor mimes, comes interpolated that Scene, not really or exactly to be described at all, (for on the many hundreds who were there it seems to this hour to have left little but a passing blur, a dream, a blotch)—and yet partially to be described as I now proceed to give it.......There is a scene in the play representing a modern parlor, in which two unprecedented English ladies are inform'd by the unprecedented and impossible Yankee that he is not a man of fortune, and therefore undesirable for marriage-catching purposes; after which, the comments being finish'd, the dramatic trio make exit, leaving the stage clear for a moment. There was a pause, a hush as it were. At this period came the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Great as that was, with all its manifold train, circling round it, and stretching into the future for many a century, in the politics, history, art, &c., of the New World, in point of fact the main thing, the actual murder, transpired with the quiet and simplicity of any commonest occurrence—the bursting of a bud or pod in the growth of vegetation, for instance. Through the general hum following the stage pause, with the change of positions, &c., came the muffled sound of a pistol shot, which not one hundredth part of the audience heard at the time—and yet a moment's hush—somehow, surely a vague startled thrill—and then, through the ornamented, draperied, starr'd and striped space-way of the President's box, a sudden figure, a man raises himself with hands and feet, stands a moment on the railing, leaps below to the stage, (a distance of perhaps fourteen or fifteen feet,) falls out of position, catching his boot-heel in the copious drapery, (the American flag,) falls on one knee, quickly recovers himself, rises as if nothing had happen'd, (he really sprains his ankle, but unfelt then,)—and so the figure, Booth, the murderer, dress'd in plain black broadcloth, bare-headed, with a full head of glossy, raven hair, and his eyes like some mad animal's flashing with light and resolution, yet with a certain strange calmness, holds aloft in one hand a large knife—walks along not much back from the footlights—turns fully toward the audience his face of statuesque beauty, lit by those basilisk eyes, flashing with desperation, perhaps insanity—launches out in a firm and steady voice the words, Sic semper tyrannis—and then walks with neither slow nor very rapid pace diagonally across to the back of the stage, and disappears.......(Had not all this terrible scene—making the mimic ones preposterous—had it not all been rehears'd, in blank, by Booth, beforehand?)
A moment's hush, incredulous—a scream—the cry of Murder—Mrs. Lincoln leaning out of the box, with ashy cheeks and lips, with involuntary cry, pointing to the retreating figure, He has kill'd the President.......And still a moment's strange, incredulous suspense—and then the deluge!—then that mixture of horror, noises, uncertainty—(the sound, somewhere back, of a horse's hoofs clattering with speed)—the people burst through chairs and railings, and break them up—that noise adds to the queerness of the scene—there is inextricable confusion and terror—women faint—quite feeble persons fall, and are trampled on—many cries of agony are heard—the broad stage suddenly fills to suffocation with a dense and motley crowd, like some horrible carnival—the audience rush generally upon it—at least the strong men do—the actors and actresses are all there in their play-costumes and painted faces, with mortal fright showing through the rouge, some trembling—some in tears—the screams and calls, confused talk—redoubled, trebled—two or three manage to pass up water from the stage to the President's box—others try to clamber up—&c., &c., &c.
In the midst of all this, the soldiers of the President's Guard, with others, suddenly drawn to the scene, burst in—(some two hundred altogether)—they storm the house, through all the tiers, especially the upper ones, inflamed with fury, literally charging the audience with fix'd bayonets, muskets and pistols, shouting Clear out! clear out! you sons of—.......Such the wild scene, or a suggestion of it rather, inside the play-house that night.
Outside, too, in the atmosphere of shock and craze, crowds of people, fill'd with frenzy, ready to seize any outlet for it, come near committing murder several times on innocent individuals. One such case was especially exciting. The infuriated crowd, through some chance, got started against one man, either for words he utter'd, or perhaps without any cause at all, and were proceeding at once to actually hang him on a neighboring lamp post, when he was rescued by a few heroic policemen, who placed him in their midst and fought their way slowly and amid great peril toward the Station House.......It was a fitting episode of the whole affair. The crowd rushing and eddying to and fro—the night, the yells, the pale faces, many frighten'd people trying in vain to extricate themselves—the attack'd man, not yet freed from the jaws of death, looking like a corpse—the silent resolute half-dozen policemen, with no weapons but their little clubs, yet stern and steady through all those eddying swarms—made indeed a fitting side-scene to the grand tragedy of the murder.......They gain'd the Station House with the protected man, whom they placed in security for the night, and discharged him in the morning.
And in the midst of that night-pandemonium of senseless hate, infuriated soldiers, the audience and the crowd—the stage, and all its actors and actresses, its paint-pots, spangles, and gas-lights—the life-blood from those veins, the best and sweetest of the land, drips slowly down, and death's ooze already begins its little bubbles on the lips.......Such, hurriedly sketch'd, were the accompaniments of the death of President Lincoln. So suddenly and in murder and horror unsurpass'd he was taken from us. But his death was painless.
[He leaves for America's History and Biography, so far, not only its most dramatic reminiscence—he leaves, in my opinion, the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, Personality. Not but that he had faults, and show'd them in the Presidency; but honesty, goodness, shrewdness, conscience, and (a new virtue, unknown to other lands, and hardly yet really known here, but the foundation and tie of all, as the future will grandly develop,) Unionism, in its truest and amplest sense, form'd the hard-pan of his character. These he seal'd with his life. The tragic splendor of his death, purging, illuminating all, throws round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while History lives, and love of Country lasts. By many has this Union been conserv'd and help'd; but if one name, one man, must be pick'd out, he, most of all, is the Conservator of it, to the future. He was assassinated—but the Union is not assassinated—ça ira! One falls, and another falls. The soldier drops, sinks like a wave—but the ranks of the ocean eternally press on. Death does its work, obliterates a hundred, a thousand—President, general, captain, private—but the Nation is immortal.]
No good Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. —Probably the reader has seen physiognomies (often old farmers, sea-captains, and such) that, behind their homeliness, or even ugliness, held superior points so subtle, yet so palpable, defying the lines of art, making the real life of their faces almost as impossible to depict as a wild perfume or fruit-taste, or a passionate tone of the living voice.....and such was Lincoln's face, the peculiar color, the lines of it, the eyes, mouth, expression, &c. Of technical beauty it had nothing—but to the eye of a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast and fascination.......The current portraits are all failures—most of them caricatures.
William Matthews concludes his poem from the tumultuous 1960s, “Why We Are Truly a Nation,” with a startling image: “Because grief unites us,/ like the locked antlers of moose/ who die on their knees in pairs.” After the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, American poets searched for a language adequate to the national tragedies that would shape the future, and what Matthews discovered was an image, drawn from the natural world, to instruct readers on the ways in which economic, political, and social divisions may have suicidal consequences: the legacy of the Civil War lives on in this land.
Which is why Whitman’s identification of Unionism as Lincoln’s “new virtue, unknown to other lands, and hardly yet really known here, but the foundation and tie of all, as the future will grandly develop,” is crucial to understanding the relationship of his poetics to American politics. In grief the poet grasps the fact that history will record the president’s life and death as integral to the American experiment, which he will continue to sing and celebrate, explore and lament, until he can no longer hold a pen. From “Song of Myself” to “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d” and Democratic Vistas he will link his writings to the fate of his country; for in the years leading up to the war he fashioned an individual poetic self—“Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos”—that in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination would summon new energy to preserving the nation, which otherwise might tear itself apart again.
Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with a powerful appeal to those who would secede from the Union:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
But in the aftermath of the war a sizable portion of the Confederacy refused to heed those better angels. Lincoln’s death laid bare the wounds of the blood-soaked nation, threatening to sunder it at the very moment that healing might begin. Whitman observed that no good portrait existed of the president—the “peculiar color” of his face, “the lines of it, the eyes, mouth, expression, &c.”—though he recognized that for “a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast and fascination.” He was such an artist. And these notes serve as preliminary sketches for his portrait of Lincoln in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d.” Soon he would transform his sorrow into a search for “a passionate tone of the living voice,” a healing sound that would reverberate down through the ages, calling us to join “the chorus of the Union.”
Recall a tragedy, historical or contemporary, national, local, or personal, and then describe it as vividly as you can, relying on research, interviews, and/or memory, in the same way that Whitman brought to life the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: what difficulties do you find in making the event seem true to life? What details in Whitman's description of the events in Ford's Theater seem most believable? Anything that strikes you as being far-fetched?
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