The following guest post is by Barbara Bair, historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division. This is the second in a series of blog posts exploring the life and work of Walt Whitman. The Library of Congress will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birthday in spring 2019 with a series of exhibits, public programs, and a digital crowdsourcing campaign to showcase the Library’s unparalleled collections of Whitman’s writings and artifacts. The full schedule can be found online here.
With some exceptions, Walt Whitman made the experiences of white male troops and white sacrifices in both North and South the focus of his concerns and understanding of the Civil War. But in his poem “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (written in 1867 and first published in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass), he addressed the bleak endurance of injustice by those long enslaved.
The poem focuses on observation of a very elderly woman who survived nearly a century of slavery, but lived to see emancipation by Union forces. Nameless, she by extension represents “Ethiopia,” or the continent and ancient civilization of Africa, and the liberation of all people of African descent formerly subjected to the middle passage and enslavement for generations in the United States.
The poem figures the enslaved woman taken as a baby from Africa (“ . . . Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought . . . “) who nevertheless retains African culture and pride in her African identity (“ . . . turban bound, yellow, red and green . . .), and finally stands by a roadside to witness a flag-bearing liberating regiment passing by. The poem is often decried as an expression of racial hierarchy that denigrates the African woman as a passive, inscrutable, decayed and marginal other. Described by Whitman as hardly human in her great age, she is a bystander to her own fate and that of history, while the male members of the Army appear as active heroes securing her change in status. But the poem can also be interpreted as Whitman’s effort to figure Africa as a woman, and to recognize the war as about African American liberation. The war itself represented a very long road to slavery’s end, especially meaningful to those “ancient” few surviving, whose long memories stretched to their African ancestors and the trans-Atlantic passage.
Whitman did his own standing by roads, waiting to catch sight of a significant passerby. He often stood on the street corner near his workplace in downtown Washington, to watch the Commander in Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, ride by on his way between the Lincoln cottage and the White House (“I see the President almost every day,” he noted one August).
Whitman had been slow to admire Lincoln. As the pre-war election approached, his foremost fear was Disunion. He was an anti-slavery advocate, and he had radical abolitionists as close friends, but he personally favored gradual means towards emancipation. He was ambivalent when he first caught sight of the president-elect in person in New York City in February 1861, when Lincoln was traveling on his way to Washington, and Whitman joined a roadside crowd on Broadway to view him. By the time he lived in wartime Washington, Whitman came to revere Lincoln as both leader of the Union war effort and as a man.
In April 1865, Whitman was visiting Brooklyn and working on the publication of his new edition of wartime poems, Drum-Taps, when news of the Lincoln assassination reached him. He wrote two poems memorializing Lincoln, and annexed them to a later expanded edition of his war poetry collection. These poems did much to shape the lasting interpretation of Lincoln many still hold today.
In the elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” published in the sequel to Drum-Taps (1865), he depicted Lincoln’s death as a Christ-like sacrifice that made future reconciliation and healing of the country possible. Whitman argued that the path to a reunited politics lay through recognizing mutual vulnerability and loss, as well as placing redemptive faith in regeneration: “. . . Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring.”
In “Lilacs” Whitman offered another imagined eye-witness perspective on yet another kind of passage. The sweeping narrative vision of the poem is that of a watchful and transcendent bystander, observing the path the fallen president’s coffin takes as it moves from Eastern cities across the plains to its burial site: “Coffin that passes through lanes and streets . . . With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing . . . With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces . . . Here coffin that slowly passes, I give you my sprig of lilac.”
After leaving Washington, Whitman continued to reflect, write, and publish about the wartime years in retrospect. He used his many notebooks from the military hospitals to compile memories of the war in his Memoranda during the War (1875-1876) and re-purposed his experiences again in his meditative and autobiographical Specimen Days (1882).
Beginning in 1879 and continuing until 1890, Whitman gave a series of April commemorative lectures on “The Death of Lincoln.” In his reading, he repurposed his close intimate Peter Doyle’s eye-witness account of the events at Ford’s Theater the night of the Lincoln assassination as if they were his own. He ended each reading of the lecture with the recitation of poems, some from his Washington years. Most notable was the popular and enduring favorite “O Captain, My Captain,” in which Lincoln appears metaphorically as the fallen commander of a ship of state that has safely reached harbor.