Today is Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. I think of this man as a God, but more on that tomorrow. But for now, I wanted to talk a little about him and Walt Whitman who adored his commander-in-chief and apparently, if not mythically, Abraham Lincoln adored him too. An anecdote exists where Lincoln, in his Springfield law office, picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass, began reading it to himself, and was so entranced after half an hour that he started over again, reading it aloud to his colleagues. Later on, I see Seward, Bates and Chase called into the oval for some poetry, Seward totally into it and the others growning.
Lincoln, for Whitman, represented the culmination of the “I” of Song of Myself, a self-made man who gave alms to all the asked, a rugged individual yet still able to obtain the height of intellectualism. He was “one of the roughs” but also, for Whitman, “a kosmos,” with the whole range of qualities that the term applied. Whitman and Lincoln, in fact, had much in common. Both rose to greatness from humbled backgrounds, and both were largely self-taught. The cultural tastes of both ran the gamut from high to low. Like Whitman, Lincoln loved to recite Shakespeare and hear the grand arias but also had a weakness for minstrel shows. Whitman’s favorite singing group, the Hutchinsons, helped elect Lincoln in 1860 by singing at Republican rallies, and during the war they entertained the Union troops. Both the president and the poet took delight in plays, even cheap melodramas and farces. There were temperamental similarities too: both were generally calm men given on occasion to explosions – of anger in Whitman’s case, of laughter in Lincoln’s. Both delighted in low humor and slang. Both had an amused curiosity about spiritualism: Whitman attended séances and Lincoln did as well in the White House ordered by his wife after the death of their son in 1862. Two of Whitman’s favorite orators, Cassius Clay and John Hale, became part of Lincoln’s administration, the former as minister to Russia, the latter as minister to Spain.
Most importantly, both Whitman and Lincoln tried to cure America’s problems through oratorical language. Whitman’s quintessential work, Leaves of Grass, was a sprawling poetry collecting that brought together cultural images in their variety and particularity. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a terse, 262-word speech that soared beyond particulars into a transcendental realm of political abstractions. Both were written in the name of union, equality, and cultural retrieval.
So enough of that… Most most most important, are the following videos… For some reason, there are a whole bunch of videos of five year olds reciting Whitman’s “Oh Captain My Captain.”
and this next one is not for our younger viewers…