The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture, and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
“How often since that dark and dripping Saturday [of April 15, 1865]—that chilly April day, now fifteen years bygone,—my heart has entertained the dream, the wish,” said Walt Whitman, “to give of Abraham Lincoln’s death its own special thought and memorial.”
Whitman’s “Death of Lincoln” lecture is at the heart of the newest offering in the Library’s By the People crowdsourcing transcription Walt Whitman Campaign focused on the Speeches portion of the Charles E. Feinberg collection of Walt Whitman Papers. Launched on April 1, the project was quickly completed through the work of over one hundred volunteer transcribers. They met the challenge goal of completion before Whitman’s May birthday, and indeed by this week’s anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and Whitman’s famous speech.
The poet devised his “Death of Lincoln” speech in 1879 to commemorate the April 14-15, 1865, demise of Lincoln. He first gave the talk on April 14, 1879, in New York, and again in Philadelphia in 1880, Boston in 1881, and repeated it several times in different cities and to different types of audiences, usually in April or May, until 1890.
“I wish to reverently commemorate” declared Whitman, explaining to his audience his goal. He crafted the “Death of Lincoln” speech in remembrance of the president, but also of the entire war. Each repetition of the speech revived tribute to the nation’s tragically fallen commander-in-chief and memory of dead, wounded, and imprisoned soldiers. The oration was also about the prelude to the war. As Whitman said, “we cannot have too many reminiscences of the Secession War and things that led to it.”
Whitman’s lecture follows an arc of tragedy that is both personal and political: Lincoln was murdered, as Whitman pointed out, in a lilac-infused springtime just after the close of the Civil War. In the speech and elsewhere in Whitman’s writing, Lincoln’s Eastertime death carried a Christ-like aura in its relation to the United States. Echoing the sentiment of the president’s Second Inaugural address, Whitman saw Lincoln’s death as penance for the sins of the nation that helped even the score of suffering between North and South and paved a way to reconciling a divided country.
Whitman’s “Death of Lincoln” was a literary masterpiece of its own kind. One 1887 promoter proclaimed that “the lecture is a prose poem and is now regarded as a classic.” That prose poem was crafted layer by layer by Whitman. His 1879-1881 reading copy for the speech was a collage of pages from his Memoranda During the War (1875) combined with newly drafted handwritten passages and penned edits, cut and pasted into what was then the newly published edition of another poet’s work, John Dunbar Hylton’s The Bride of Gettysburg (1878). In his preparatory notes, also in the Library’s Feinberg-Whitman collection, Whitman jotted ideas of the war as about “the fervent love of comrades” and studied the eighth section of The Odyssey regarding the divine bard “who sings of the bloody war between the Greeks & Trojans.” He argued in his speech that Lincoln took highest place in a leadership vision of history; he was indeed to Whitman the pivotal figure of the 19th century, whose birth origins made him “a Southern contribution.” Whitman, meanwhile, took on the role of the bard who carried on the story. In giving the speech Whitman forever linked himself with Lincoln and reinforced his own continued celebrity and claim as poet for the nation.
Whitman had long been interested in rhetoric and oratory. He had feasted on it as a young man and had been brought up on the spoken and written word. His mother, Louisa, with whom he was close, was a storyteller. He later said he had learned to craft a narrative at her knee. The Lyceum movement reached its heyday as he came into his prime. He heard orators and speakers, attended debates, and reported on events and performances as a newspaperman. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures on Transcendentalism profoundly framed Whitman’s thinking in the formative years of Leaves of Grass. His fascination with vocal expression was also fed by the plays and musical performances he attended in Manhattan, and he held deep appreciation of the leading Shakespearean actors and opera singers of his day.
Whitman aspired in the period when he was first writing Leaves of Grass to become a lecturer himself. He had prepared and thought about speechmaking at the same time he was creating the narrative voice of “Song of Myself” in the early 1850s. Historian David Reynolds has argued in his book, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (1995), that Whitman’s remarkable poetical masterpiece, written in the first person “I,” can itself be seen as a form of oratory.
Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln’s political rise was based on his gifts as an orator. Master of the cracker-barrel story as a country store proprietor, wielder of the turn of phrase and persuasive argument as a lawyer, he famously excelled in the Lincoln-Douglas debates leading up to his election as the Republican party nominee for president. In an era of masterful oratory in the Congress and from the pulpit, and powerful oratory by Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and others on the abolition speaker circuit, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural emerged as kingpins of 19th century oratory and of presidential speeches across time. Whitman and Lincoln shared common rural beginnings and the love of language and American idioms and slang, as well as enjoyment of all levels of the performing arts.
It was not until he was an old man that Whitman fulfilled the idea of himself as a speechmaker and orator, and as a keeper of the flame of Lincoln remembrance. Speaking engagements and the lecture tour were, then as now, ways that people with already established reputations made a living. In the last period of his life he was in ill health, chronically in need of funds, and ever the self-promoter who enjoyed a cadre of loyal followers. With encouragement from Samuel Clemens and others, he turned in a limited way to the lecture circuit, adding the speech to the essay, the poem, and the periodical piece as one of his means of expression.
Read in combination with his famed Lincoln poems, “O Captain, My Captain” (which he recited at the end of the oration) and the elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both written in the wake of the assassination and first published in the sequel to Whitman’s wartime book of poetry, Drum Taps, the speech helped create a lasting spin about Lincoln and his significance in history. The speech built to dramatic crescendo and reportedly left audiences spellbound. Whitman started describing the period before the war, followed through to the assassination, and concluded with the closing pronouncement of the monumental “erasure of Slavery from The States” and Lincoln as the “Martyr Chief.”
Whitman painted the death of Lincoln as the end of a hero’s journey that made possible what he called “Nationality” and reconciliation. He saw the war as a tremendous, and ultimately necessary, national reckoning, and a consequence in his view of incompetent and corrupt politicians. Its aftermath pointed to a new salvation for democratic possibility, especially in comparison to the former feudalism of Europe.
Whitman did not perceive the period after the war from the viewpoint of formerly enslaved persons whose constitutional promises were so brutally crushed in the Jim Crow turn of Reconstruction—consequences of which would lead to the white supremacist discrimination and violence that continued into the next century. His primary concern was for the white working men he so loved—comrades North and South, whom he described as his “friends on both sides.”
In the years leading to war, Whitman had feared disunion and was skeptical of Lincoln’s election to the presidency. He came to be one of the Republican president’s most ardent admirers. For Whitman, Lincoln was the great re-uniter of white men North and South previously so at odds with one another—brothers who had fought a war that Whitman in his speech called “fratricidal.” To Whitman, the terrible bloodshed and terror of the war were things faced predominantly by white soldiers, and the rows upon rows of the buried dead were prices white citizens had paid. Though he appreciated Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, his was not the Lincoln of Frederick Douglass, or the Lincoln of many formerly enslaved persons who understood the connection between the assassination and Lincoln’s evolving stances on the matter of race and rights. Their Lincoln, in combination with the concerted efforts, activism, and service of African Americans in the war, brought about the sea change of their liberation.
The poet had little to say in the speech as to the horror and brutality of slavery itself, or those who had lived under its lash for generations. He referred to secessionists and abolitionists in effect as rabble rousers, though he had counted among his friends supporters of John Brown. Nor did he mention in his speech the dashed prospects of freedmen in the new post-war republic. Whitman’s remembrance of Lincoln and of the war itself was awash in white woundedness. Elements of such thinking as applied to the South fed into the kind of martyred Lost Cause memorialization that soon came to dominate the vision of the Secession War in the former Confederacy.
The narrative of the oration builds poignantly from an eyewitness account of the first time Whitman saw Lincoln in person. When he was a little boy, Whitman saw Lafayette in a celebratory way when the Revolutionary hero visited New York, but this was something different. The adult poet was part of an ominous crowd that watched Lincoln make his way to Astor House as he stopped in New York in February 1861 on his way to his inauguration in Washington. Whitman describes a mass “of thirty to forty thousand men, not a single one his personal friend,” and the atmosphere as quietly hostile. He alludes to the threats Lincoln faced from the beginning, imagining that in the crowd “many an assassin’s knife and pistol lurked in hip or breast pocket there, ready, soon as break and riot came.” (See By the People mss1863001126-18 (Walt Whitman: Speeches).) The image of that day, Whitman said, was “indelibly stamped upon my recollection.”
Whitman used a different audience perspective in his description of the night of Lincoln’s murder. In delivering his lecture, he read from his written account of the assassination scene from Memoranda During the War. He appears to be reporting as an eyewitness but was actually using the description given to him by his significant other, Peter Doyle. Whitman was in New York preparing Drum Taps for press at the time of the shooting, but Doyle was at Ford’s Theater.
Whitman is ever cognizant of the play within the play. He observes in soliloquy to his own spellbound audience that Lincoln was “the leading actor” in the country’s real-life drama, killed by a theater actor who jumped on stage after firing the fatal shot and exited backstage as if he had rehearsed it. Meanwhile, as Mary Lincoln cried out, an at-first oblivious and confused, and then stunned, theater audience broke into chaos. In that moment Lincoln’s career, Whitman observed, reached “its highest poetic, single, central, pictorial denouement.” (See By the People mss1863001126-24 (Walt Whitman: Speeches).)
Whitman reached the apex of his performance of “Death of Lincoln” at Madison Square Theater in New York on April 14, 1887. He delivered the lecture before a large audience including leading philanthropists and literati. The attendees included Cuban journalist and exiled writer José Martí, whose review published in Buenos Aires helped spread Whitman’s reputation in Latin America. Whitman suffered another disabling stroke in 1888. In increasing decline, he delivered the lecture for the last time in Philadelphia in 1890. His Lincoln poems were part of the last, “death-bed” edition of Leaves of Grass, and his own death came in Camden, New Jersey, on March 26, 1892.
The By the People crowdsourcing transcription Whitman Speeches project gives opportunity to a new generation of Americans to gather electronically to revisit and remember. Contributors closely engage with Whitman’s texts, and students, teachers, and life-long learners can see the originals in juxtaposition with the new transcriptions, rethinking again the significance of the death of Lincoln and Whitman as a national poet.
A webcast of an April 14, 2005 re-enactment of the “Death of Lincoln” program by the Library of Congress, with Daniel Mark Epstein reading the Lincoln lecture, is available on the Library’s website. You can also listen to what is reputed to be a rare wax-cylinder recording of Whitman speaking aloud in 1889-1890, reciting lines from his poem “America.”