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The Civil War and After

Drum Taps has none of the perturbations of Leaves of Grass.

January 6, 1865, to William Douglas O'Connor

(Corr 1:247)

I feel quite well, perhaps not as completely so as I used to … but I think I shall get so this spring—as I did indeed feel yesterday better than I have since I was taken sick last summer.

January 30, 1865, to Thomas Jefferson Whitman

(Corr 1:250)

As you see by the date of this, I am back again in Washington, moving around regularly, but not to excess, among the hospitals. … My health is pretty good, but since I was prostrated last July, I have not had that unconscious and perfect health I formerly had. The physician says my system has been penetrated by the malaria—it is tenacious, peculiar and some-what baffling—but tells it will go over in due time. It is my first appearance in the character of a man not entirely well.

February 6, 1865, to John Townsend Trowbridge

(Corr 1:254)

Could you give me a little further information about my brother Capt. George W. Whitman, 51st New York … Why did not he, & the other officers, 51st N. Y., come up with the main body, for exchange? Were the other officers 51st there at Danville [Prison], time you left? Please tell me all you know, or think probable, on this subject of why they did not come? Have they been sent further south, to avoid ex-changing them, or are they still at Danville? Was my brother really well & hearty?. … Do you know whether my brother got letters & boxes we sent him? Was he in the attempt to escape, Dec. 10, last? My dear sir, if you could take a leisure half hour & write me, soon as possible, what you know on these, or any points relating to my brother, it would deeply oblige me—

February 27, 1865, to Captain William Cook

(Corr 1:255)


I write a few lines to tell you how I find the folks at home—Both my mother & brother George looked much better than I expected—Mother is quite well, considering—she goes about her household affairs pretty much the same as ever, & is cheerful.

My brother would be in what I would almost call fair condition, if it were not that his legs are affected—it seems to me it is rheumatism, following the fever he had—but I don't know—He goes to bed quite sleepy & falls to sleep—but then soon wakes, & frequently little or no more sleep that night—he most always leaves the bed, & comes downstairs, & passes the night on the sofa. He goes out most every day though—some days has to lay by—He is going to report to Annapolis promptly when his furlough is up—I told him I had no doubt I could get it extended, but he does not wish it—

I am feeling finely—& never enjoyed a visit home more than I am doing this.

March 26, 1865, to William Douglas O'Connor and Nelly O'Connor (Corr 1:256–57)

I am stopping longer than first intended, as I have decided to print the book, and am now under way with it. The grand culminations of past week impress me profoundly of course. I feel more than ever how America has been entirely re-stated by them—and they will shape the destinies of the future of the whole of mankind.

April 7, 1865, to William Douglas O'Connor

(Corr 1:257–58)

After four agonizing years the Civil War was over. Richmond had fallen on April 3, Lee had surrendered to Grant on April 9, and on April 15 Whitman was in New York seeing his small book Drum-Taps through the press. But what Whitman later called “the foulest crime in history known in any land or age” had already stained the presidential box at Ford's Theater (LG, p. 339). So on that stupefying Saturday morning, Whitman and his mother exchanged the papers silently. Neither of them

could say much, and nothing more was eaten that day. “Mother pre-pared breakfast,” he later recalled, “and other meals afterward—as usual; but not a mouthful was eaten all day by either of us. We each drank half a cup of coffee; that was all. Little was said. We got every newspaper morning and evening, and the frequent extras of that period, and pass'd them silently to each other” (SD 711–12). He further recalled, “I re-member 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.”[1]

In Washington the night before, Peter Doyle, who was attracted by celebrities and liked the theater, had gone to see the play, the President, and his wife. For his commemorative Lincoln lectures, which began in 1879, Whitman drew on Doyle's eyewitness account of the shooting, among other sources.[2] Oddly enough, however, the poem he completed by mid-September 1865 omits all direct reference to the violent human intervention that ended Lincoln's life.[3] The symbolism of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd”—the broken sprig, for example, that the persona offers to Lincoln's coffin at the end of Section 6—alludes obliquely to a premature ending. But a premature ending is not necessar-ily a historical outrage or a political injustice. Thus until the poem's final climax when, as Ed Folsom notes, Whitman “faces the horrifying results of the war,”[4] the imagery seems to be working to exclude vulgar local associations, to exclude the trivial in favor of the exalted.

Critics have tended to assume that in “Lilacs” Whitman sought to avert his gaze and that of his readers from the specifically human deed wrought by John Wilkes Booth. As the “wound-dresser” poet, so the story goes, Whitman was seeking to promote a national psychology of peace. And there was no need for him to restate the obvious. His au-dience knew the unnarratable fact: Lincoln had been brutally assassi-nated.[5] Without denying the validity of this reading, in what follows I would like to suggest that dominant discussions of “the poet's attempts to resolve for himself and the nation the panic-struck vision of Lincoln's assassination as a black horror” have not yet fully accounted for the subtlety of Whitman's griefwork.[6] His cunning omission of the assassin's hand serves to problematize, as do other anti-occasional elements of the poem, the esthetic and erotic complexity of Whitman's bereavement, which includes anger, as we might expect, although the genealogy of this vengeful feeling is perhaps surprising.


With its nostalgia for the unclouded serenity of an earlier political, literary, and spiritual life, “Lilacs” takes its time about its strange revelations.[7] As he memorializes a culture's earlier ways of knowing, includ-ing its ways of sexual knowing, Whitman resists the desocialization—in psychoanalytic terms the castration—to which his “comrade lustrous with silver face in the night” (LG, p. 337) has been subjected. Michael Moon explains,

What is perhaps most important to notice about the whole range of modes of relationship represented in Leaves of Grass is that the social and the sex-ual are usually not oppositional categories in them, nor is the social con-ceived of as being essentially nonerotic while the erotic is consigned to the re-stricted orbit of what the culture considers the sexual. It is the effect of the entire project not only to eroticize the social realm but also to socialize the culture's construction of the erotic as the highly anxiogenic realm of the inti-mate, the private, the shameful, the concealed, the destructive.

If, as Moon further argues, “the drama of the speaker's coming to terms (to the degree that he does) with the death of Lincoln and all the losses of the war that Lincoln's death is made to represent is related to the ‘drama’ of the origins of sexuality in the individual subject,” then Whit-man's understanding of mourning, and of the relationship between mourning and art, is necessarily pressured by his understanding of sexu-ality.[8] To a greater degree than Moon cares to acknowledge, however, in “Lilacs,” and by extension in the 1867 Leaves of Grass, Whitman so-cializes the realm of grief by depersonalizing the realm of the sexual. Moon stresses “the text's repository of signs drawn from infantile erotic experience”: “holding and being held, holding and releasing … and a traumatic rupture between the phases of each of these processes.”[9] I pre-fer to emphasize the speaker's pride in his ability as an artist to subju-gate his adult trouble and, by extension, to discipline his body. Grief, he informs us, returns each spring following the arrival of certain hopeful natural signs; grief renews itself, but tears do not flow unremittingly. This paradoxical opening is ripe for plunder, and reading the poem now we cannot help but hear the Eliotic echo: April is indeed the cruelest month. Galway Kinnell, however, hears another part of the story when he observes that in “Lilacs” “the grief is too thoroughly consoled before the first line is uttered.”[10] Along somewhat similar lines, Christopher Beach contends that the poem “belie[s] Whitman's radical persona: that of a cultural iconoclast seeking to dismantle or overturn the dominant forms and values of the English and European literary traditions.”[11]

These objections notwithstanding, “Lilacs” is Whitman's most astutely

self-referential poem. As it revisits the esthetic and erotic crises of his career, the interior and exterior geographies of “Lilacs” take us back to all those erotically ambivalent occasions when the Whitman persona entered into and then resisted enduring personal attachments. These in-clude the belated Calamus attachments of Drum-Taps without its “Se-quel.” In the volume as completed before Lincoln's death, Whitman, find-ing his “boy of responding kisses,” “buried him where he fell” (DT 43). Again, Moon is helpful here. He explains,

Rather than representing a relational norm in Whitman, the erotic pairings depicted in a number of the “Calamus” poems (for example, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” or “We Two Boys Together Clinging”) are excep-tional. They are also highly problematic in the broader context of the project, because they are alternately represented as being so satisfying that they iso-late the erotic subject from all but one other person, or so painful that they isolate him altogether.[12]

When Whitman finds his “boy of responding kisses” on the battle-field, he is able to fantasize a relation of lovers and perfect equals that satisfies him completely. As we have seen, finding an adult man was an-other matter, beginning even before the 1855 Leaves of Grass. The point is not that Whitman chronically used or abused the young men who fell in love with him, but rather that, as poet and person, he was working to free himself of heterosexual relational norms based on the anxiety-producing model of the patriarchal family. “Lilacs” thus takes on a for-midable challenge. Peter M. Sacks has shrewdly suggested that Whitman did not want to reestablish traditional fatherhood in the text, nor did he intend to affirm “the kind of figure traditionally essential to elegiac con-solation,” “a highly differentiated, totemic figure of authority and jus-tice.”[13] Although a full-scale critique of Whitman's bellicose mode in Drum-Taps lies beyond the scope of this chapter, it is evident that the poet who was writing “Lilacs” in the self-conscious character of “a man not entirely well” was seeking to spare himself, as well as the nation, from further suffering.

Suffering takes many forms, however, and as Robert Leigh Davis observes, in Whitman's Civil War writings there are multiple ironic lay-erings: “‘enemies’ are at the same time ‘brothers,’ ‘sisters,’ ‘fathers,’ ‘friends,’ and ‘lovers.’”[14] In attempting to distinguish enemies from friends, a project that had been to some extent abandoned in the Calamus sequence, Whitman the artist (who claimed that “Drum Taps has none of the perturbations of Leaves of Grass”) had begun to minimize the impor-tance of the body. Under the pressure of Civil War, the social and the sexual

were becoming oppositional categories. After all, how could he continue to view the body as a socializing agent for his culture when the Union so insistently demanded its sacrifice? With the advantage of hind-sight and with seeming inevitability, the bloodlust of battle culminated in Lincoln's death. Yet if perturbation was a fact of sexual life, it was not the only fact, and the elegiac voice of “Lilacs” is alert to its own duplicity. The strain between comic and tragic sexual histories is palpable, and the poem encourages a resisting reading. Does the lilac sprig, for example, which the speaker breaks from its flowering bush and places on Lincoln's coffin, evoke the assassin's or the lover's hand? Should we link the poet's cas-trative gesture to the already somewhat archaic meaning of “hand” as “handwriting”? Is it Whitman who engages in the “sexual renunciation” of his lover, as Sacks contends,[15] or is it Whitman who affirms his own literary and erotic potency through this tributary gesture? Indirectly, “Lilacs” exposes the difficulty of distinguishing enemy from friend, and the self as complete lover from the self as partial aggressor. It implies many narratives of mutually exclusive desire; they do not fully cohere.

As he sentimentalized the lost leader, the “comrade lustrous with sil-ver face in the night” (LG, p. 337), Whitman nevertheless stopped short of celebrating the instruments of Civil War. This is an important consid-eration, and I should like to explore its erotic dimension further. Writ-ing for himself and as his own first reader, in “Lilacs” Whitman creates an idealized community of lovers who for the time being are not ene-mies. This temporary community is organized by death, since death alone has the power to interrupt a phallic narrative which identifies the male gender with social aggression. In the Calamus sequence, the poet of comrades had already written and rewritten a homoerotic pastoral from which personal aggression had been imperfectly exiled. But whereas Calamus is mainly pressured by the persona's inconstant affections, to-gether with those of his lover(s), the postwar poet discovers in death the “Spirit Whose Work is Done.” Reluctantly, he finds himself and the nation eerily empowered by the loss of a leader who, in his absence, can be reimagined as universally and personally beloved. Thus, as Benedict Anderson might have predicted, Whitman's imagined community origi-nates in a powerful repression of memory, the memory of a confused po-litical and sexual life before death.[16] This necessary forgetting facilitates the emotional reorientation and deep attachment between men and be-tween men and women Whitman had long been seeking. The erotic poet humbled by loss discovers in shared grief a personal and national bond that democratizes social and psychological difference. Whitman's powerful

and self-reflexive poem represents the nation “draped in black” as a fragile but enduring socioerotic community, and in so doing realizes its true style and subject.

After visiting the White House on October 31, 1863, Whitman recorded in his diary, “Saw Mr. Lincoln standing, talking with a gentleman, ap-parently a dear friend. His face & manner … are inexpressibly sweet—one hand on his friend's shoulder, the other holds his hand. I love the President personally” (DT xviii–xix). These are the words of a man who wistfully watches other people's friendships and who romanticizes for-bidden loves. Composing a sonorous hymn to endangered devotion that transformed the assassination from a political to a natural and even mythic event, Whitman was writing out of the context of earlier affec-tional losses, including the failure of his relationship with his father and the probable loss during the late 1850s of more than one idealized Cala-mus lover. He was also writing out of the more immediate failure of his love affair with the American public. His books had not sold, and despite his admiration for the common soldiers whom he encountered during his hospital visits, the fact still rankled. Though in Washington he had some ardent admirers, including John Burroughs to whom he was indebted for his knowledge of the reclusive hermit thrush (“likes shaded, dark, places in swamps—/ is very shy / sings in May & June—/ not much after June / is our best songster” [“Hermit Thrush,” NUPM 2:766]), his words were mainly unheard by the nation at large, and Whitman's erotic anxieties were reinforced by his professional marginalization.

As a Lincoln lover, however, Whitman admits no erotic rivals. Living beyond time, under no temporal circumstances can he be displaced by his beloved's beloved, and he celebrates an erotic life inviolable by third parties. This fantasy of imperial selfhood nevertheless proves, is prov-ing, and has proved remarkably unstable. “Lincoln” in death becomes the speaker's permanent possession, but “Lincoln” in death also becomes the speaker's permanent loss. The tenuous balance that Whitman achieves between erotic expression and erotic self-suppression is con-tinually threatened by a number of historical factors, including, in the more or less real world, the demonstrable rivalrous intervention of John Wilkes Booth, who notoriously figures in the poem through his absence. Evidently Whitman is determined to expunge Booth from his text: both his national, political text and his timeless, unconscious text. But here Whitman discovers that silencing Booth is easier said than done. Insofar as “Booth” represents unanchored, free-floating aggression—that which

cannot be contained, normalized, or truly forgotten—he also represents a perpetual possibility in the human soul. Although he may not know it, grief is only one of the feelings that threaten the persona's psychic integ-rity at the poem's inception. Because of the uncanny coincidence between his personal and cultural work—in both spheres his mission is ruthlessly to silence Booth and Booth's impersonators, including himself—the be-reaved lover may have trouble distinguishing the nation's mourning, in which he participates, from his own less social, more self-immortalizing project. Ironically, reviewing Whitman's attitudes toward the historical Lincoln may serve to reinforce this point.

Like other ardent Northern Unionists, Whitman had initially entertained substantial and, in the event, realistic reservations about Lincoln's abil-ity to hold the country together. At one time, he hubristically imagined that Lincoln could profit from the benefit of his political advice. “Bro-chure,” he projected: “Two characters as of a dialogue between A. L.—n and W. Whitman.—as in? a dream—or better? Lessons for a President elect—Dialogue between W. W. and ‘President elect.’”[17] Commenting on the fabled Lincoln-Douglas debates in August 1858, he observed that “of the two, Mr. Lincoln seems to have had the advantage thus far in the war of words.” But he supported Douglas, to whom he looked to reinvigorate the moribund Democratic party. And it was Douglas rather than Lincoln who, Whitman hoped, would organize “a great middle conservative party, neither proscribing slavery … nor fostering it.”[18] Before the war, then, Lincoln struck him as too extreme in his op-position to the South's peculiar institution.

Moreover, the radically competitive Whitman was prejudiced against the institution of the presidency, disputing as he did the concept of “Supremes.” “I praise no eminent man—I rebuke to his face the one that was thought most worthy,” he announced in the 1860 consciousness-raising poem “Myself and Mine,” a rather transparent example of his envious need to feel good about himself, and a poem in which he vowed “To speak readily and clearly—to feel at home among common people.” “It is ended—I dally no more,” he wrote,

After to-day I inure myself to run, leap, swim, wrestle, fight,

To stand the cold or heat—to take good aim with a gun—to sail a boat—to manage horses—to beget superb children,

To speak readily and clearly—to feel at home among common people,

And to hold my own in terrible positions, on land and sea.

(LG 1860, p. 224)


Paradoxically, the antebellum Whitman was both a statesrighter and a Unionist, and in the “Proto-Leaf” to the 1860 Leaves, he had declared, “I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons with menacing points, / And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces” (LG 1860, p. 10). With good reason, Whitman hated Buchanan, but his antipresidential diatribes were part of a larger politics in which there had to be room at the top for the ordinary men and women whom he imag-ined as his readers. “Have you outstript the rest? Are you the Presi-dent?” he inquired. “It is a trifle—they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on” (LG 1860, p. 50). Thus, he had asked:

Is it you that thought the President greater than you? Or the rich better off than you? or the educated wiser than you?

The President is there in the White House for you—it is not you who are here for him. …

You workwomen and workmen of These States having your own divine and strong life,

Looking the President always sternly in the face, unbending, nonchalant,

Understanding that he is to be kept by you to short and sharp account of himself,

And all else thus far giving place to men and women like you.

(LG 1860, pp. 145, 149, 157)

Along with the 1855 “Preface,” the first three editions of Leaves of Grass are filled with this kind of language: antipatriarchal, anti-establishment, and antipresidential. There is also a self-interested, demagogic edge to Whitman's rhetoric. When the “Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall” (LG 1860, p. 115), power shall be transferred not just to any poet but to Whitman in particular.

Associating presidents with tyrannical fathers as he does in “Song of the Broad-Axe,” where he urges that children are to be “taught from the jump … to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves” (LG 1860, p. 133), Whitman also announced in the “Apostroph” to the “Chants Democratic” of the 1860 Leaves, “O you grand Presidentiads! I wait for you!” (LG 1860, p. 108), which is not surprising considering that he had always been reluctant to jettison a vocabulary of personal loyalty based on the model of family ties. This model, as we have seen, generated fantasies of perfect brotherhood and fatherhood, included a weeping George Washington, enabled Whitman to address Emerson as “dear Friend and Master”, and could accommodate other “supremes,” such as God. (On perfect motherhood, see the next chapter.) In any

event, the poetically productive contradiction between the anarchic and conservative Whitmans is inscribed in “Lilacs,” where the dead presi-dent is both a melancholy comrade (not a supreme) and “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands” (a supreme of a democratic sort).

Whitman first saw Lincoln in person in mid-February 1861. From the top of an omnibus, he observed a silent, sulky crowd observing the black-clad president-elect in front of the Astor House on Broadway. Though Lincoln's life was already being threatened—both Lincoln and his wife feared that he would never return to Springfield alive—at the suggestion of New York Senator William Henry Seward he was deliberately taking a circuitous route on his journey to the capital, so as to rally support in the North. “The crowd that hemm'd around consisted I should think,” Whitman recalled in his anniversary lecture,

of thirty to forty thousand men, not a single one his personal friend—while I have no doubt, (so frenzied were the ferments of the time,) many an as-sassin's knife and pistol lurk'd in hip or breast-pocket there, ready, soon as break and riot came.

But no break or riot came. The tall figure gave another relieving stretch or two of arms and legs; then with moderate pace, and accompanied by a few unknown looking persons, ascended the porticosteps of the Astor House, disappear'd through its broad entrance—and the dumb-show ended.[19]

So frenzied were the ferments of the time that in the homiletic 1860 poem beginning “Respondez! Respondez!” Whitman had commanded apocalyptically, “Let Death be inaugurated! / Let nothing remain upon the earth except the ashes of teachers, artists, moralists, lawyers, and learned and polite persons! / Let him who is without my poems be as-sassinated!” (LG 1860, p. 168). It was galling to the poet who called himself the Answerer to find his ideas slighted, ignored, or even violently rebuffed by America's thinking elite. Whitman could play a part no longer; he was incensed with a little success.[20]

Following his own move to Washington in December 1862, Whitman was able to observe Lincoln more closely. The two men were never in-troduced and never spoke, but Whitman often saw the president as he was driven through the streets of Washington in his carriage. And he be-gan to identify with Lincoln's plight. Writing to his friends Nat Bloom and Fred Gray, whom he called his “gossips & darlings,” on March 19, 1863, Whitman noted:

I think well of the President. He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion. My notion is, too, that

underneath his outside smutched mannerism, and stories from third-class county barrooms, (it is his humor,) Mr. Lincoln keeps a fountain of first-class practical telling wisdom. I do not dwell on the supposed failures of his government; he has shown, I sometimes think, an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat at all, with head steady, not only not going down, and now certain not to, but with proud and resolute spirit, and flag flying in sight of the world, menacing and high as ever. I say never yet cap-tain, never ruler, had such a perplexing, dangerous task as his, the past two years. I more and more rely upon his idiomatic western genius, careless of court dress or court decorums. (Corr 1:82–83)

“I had a good view of the President last evening,” the poet, who re-mained concerned for Lincoln's safety, wrote to his mother on June 30, 1863:

He looks more careworn even than usual—his face with deep cut lines, seams, & his complexion gray, through very dark skin, a curious looking man, very sad—I said to a lady who was looking with me, “Who can see that man without losing all wish to be sharp upon him personally? Who can say he has not a good soul?” The lady assented, although she is almost vin-dictive on the course of the administration, (thinks it wants nerve &c., the usual complaint). (Corr 1:113)

This complaint was shared by Whitman's brother Jeff, who found Lin-coln indecisive, “not a man for the times, not big enough … an old woman.”[21] For his part, Whitman tried not to blame Lincoln for Union losses. “I believe fully in Lincoln,” he wrote to Abby Price as Meade was unable to slow the Confederate advance across Virginia's Rapidan River; again, Whitman employed the ship of state metaphor that figured prom-inently in his letters home: “Few know the rocks & quicksands he has to steer through” (Corr 1:163–64).

The ship of state metaphor also figured prominently in one of Lin-coln's recurrent anxiety dreams, which, despite its murky symbolism, the president himself considered an omen of Union victory. And so it hap-pened that on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, when Lincoln held his last cabinet meeting,

General Grant, who attended the meeting, was asked for late news from Sherman, but had none. Lincoln remarked that it would come soon, and be favorable, for last night he had dreamed a familiar dream. In a strange in-describable ship he seemed to be moving with great rapidity toward a dark and undefined shore. He had this same dream before Sumter, Bull Run, Antie-tam, Murfreesborough, Vicksburg, and Wilmington. Matter-of-fact Grant remarked that Murfreesborough was no victory—“a few such fights would have ruined us.” Lincoln looked at him curiously and said, however that might be, his dream preceded that battle.[22]


So Whitman's fears for Lincoln's safety, as expressed in his most pop-ular poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” and as represented by the thor-oughly conventional ship of state metaphor, had a dense history in the poet's thoughts and in the president's. With good reason, then, both Mutlu Konuk Blasing and Kenneth M. Price refer to Lincoln as Whit-man's political alter ego.[23] He had not always been so, but so he became. As a political person, however, Whitman was making what Jahan Ra-mazani calls “the prototypical elegiac leap from particulars to redemp-tive abstractions.”[24] To write his way out of those historically specific divisions and self-divisions we have been examining, Whitman allied himself emotionally with the reclusive hermit thrush who, whatever else he may be, is clearly his artistic alter ego in “Lilacs.” Whitman addresses this bleeding other as “dear brother,” reminding him in somewhat ar-chaic diction, “If thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die.” The language recalls the voice of the bereaved mockingbird in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” but following the Civil War, Whit-man understands even more acutely not only that poetry, in and through communion with others, may forestall spiritual death, but that “song” arises from parting. “Sooner or later,” ceremonies of departure epito-mize the human condition.

“Must not worry about George, for I hope the worst is over—must keep up a stout heart,” Whitman had cautioned himself in a notebook entry written early in 1863. But then he had exploded, “My opinion is to stop the war now” (NUPM 2:548–49). Whatever his reservations about Lincoln's leadership, by the end of October he explained to his mother, “I have finally made up my mind that Mr. Lincoln has done as good as a human man could do—I still think him a pretty big President” (Corr 1:174). Thereafter, he continued to reiterate his support for a be-leaguered president, although it could be argued that he was almost equally taken with General Grant, “the most in earnest of any man in command or in the government either” (Corr 1:211). “Others may say what they like, I believe in Grant & in Lincoln too” (Corr 1:213). By May 6, 1864, he was convinced that

Grant has taken the reins entirely in his own hands—he is really dictator at present—we shall hear something important within two or three days—Grant is very secretive indeed—he bothers himself very little about sending news even to the President or Stanton—time only can develope his plans—I still think he is going to take Richmond & soon, (but I may be mistaken as I have been in past)—(Corr 1:219–20)


Many of these contradictory attitudes toward Lincoln and male hero-ism are exemplified by a letter Whitman wrote to his mother follow-ing the assassination. On May 25, he praised the new president, Andrew Johnson, extolled Grant, who had been instrumental in effecting the ex-change of Captain George Whitman from a Confederate prison camp, as “the noblest Roman of them all,” and proffered an oblique dismissal of both leaders, Johnson and Grant, with the statement, “but the rank & file was the greatest sight of all” (Corr 1:261–62). So the point is not that Whitman was more or less indifferent to Lincoln before John Wilkes Booth changed history. The seeds of his Lincoln cult had been planted, as had the seeds of a Grant cult. But following Whitman's attitudes in his contemporaneous writings, we are far from a vision of Lincoln as “the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Cen-tury,” as he became in the somewhat ironically titled “Personal Remi-niscences of Abraham Lincoln.”[25]

Nevertheless, Whitman's finest Lincoln elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” is strikingly free of such particularizing detail as he could have provided from personal observation, from the firsthand accounts of others, or from his reading—had he wished to memorialize the historical Lincoln. As Helen Vendler has noted, “Lilacs” does not really contain “Memories of President Lincoln,” which is the title of the Leaves cluster to which the poem was eventually assigned.[26] Other ele-gists provided “memories” of President Lincoln, evoking his rise from obscure origins, early losses, “cunning with the pen” (the phrase is Rich-ard Henry Stoddard's), proverbial honesty, penchant for telling humor-ous stories, hatred of slavery, clemency toward the South, and political martyrdom—to name just a few themes in the voluminous Lincoln lit-erature of the postbellum era.[27] Instead, Whitman histrionically fore-grounded himself as the leading character in Lincoln's drama and dis-solved the actual Abe into a national panorama of lost men. Given this dramatic repression of Lincoln's personal history and particular quali-ties (“the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands” does not really qualify in the way of particularizing historical detail), and Whitman's al-most complete repression of the murder as murder, it is evident that the poet's literary aggression had targets other than Booth. In short, Whit-man's historically conditioned distrust of powerful men was so great as to covertly determine the structure of any serious poem that he might write in praise of a fallen leader.

How does one compete with the honored dead, the dead whom one

also wishes to honor? To say that Whitman identifies positively or even narcissistically with Lincoln, as to some extent he surely does, is not to suggest that he identifies with a unitary phenomenon. The poet who ear-lier in his career prided himself on his contradictions knew whereof he spoke. Caught as he is between a regenerative ideal (“fresh as the morn-ing”) and the nightstricken actual, the persona is determined to transcend his very representative grief and is committed to his personal, isolating quarrel with what, in his shrewd psychic economy, the dead president also represents: the power of the presidency, the power of the father, the power of the modern, technological, military state. Let's not be foolish here and claim that Whitman is in love with an aristocratic ideal. But just as at one time John Fitzgerald Kennedy seemed to represent a witty and humane alternative to his lackluster predecessor, so too, Lincoln, even as a “hoosier Michael Angelo,” accumulated some of the trappings of an imperial presidency.[28] Nor was Whitman unimpressed by imperial presences. From a distance, he had also been starstruck by the hand-some young Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.[29] And he ad-mired the “Princes of Asia” who visited New York City in June 1860 and whose “swart” cheeks provided a positive model of elegant nonwhite-ness. (The Japanese princes are described as “leaning back in their open barouches, bare-headed, impassive” [DT 61].) Considered as a demo-cratic performance, then, “Lilacs” brilliantly encapsulates the American fascination with royalty, with “Yous up there” and with “Supremes.”

I am suggesting that “Lilacs” has two emotional projects: transcend-ing grief and transmuting aggression. When the speaker praises the dead president as “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands” or as his “dear,” then “dearest” comrade, he is specifically denying Lincoln's political power and robbing him of his phallic force. Vaguely reminis-cent of Wordsworth's Lucy, “Fair as a star, when only one / Is shining in the sky,” Lincoln is associated with the evening star Whitman later called “voluptuous Venus … languid and shorn of her beams, as if from some divine excess” (SD 806). Just as in the opening poem of Wordsworth's “Lucy” sequence a dropping moon portends her death (“‘O mercy!’ to myself I cried, / ‘If Lucy should be dead!’”), so too in “Lilacs” the star's disappearance portends the president's death, stagily.[30] In keeping with the poem's ambiguous emotional project, Whitman's “lustrous” orb is both masculinized and feminized, empowered and disempowered, pos-sessing the brilliance of a masculine supreme tempered by the obscurity of the feminized dead.

The persona's need to evade his aggression, to cover it all over with

“bouquets of roses … with roses and early lilies … [and with] the lilac that blooms the first” (LG, p. 331), has two main literary consequences. First, in offering Lincoln's coffin his sprig of lilac, he renounces his vision of himself as a romantic rebel, a vision allied with his sense of himself as a primitive phallic force. Second, having renounced this sociopolitical conception of his poetic mission, he is compelled to sing “Death's out-let song of life,” “Song of the bleeding throat” (LG, p. 330). Glancing obliquely at Lincoln's martyrdom, the self-dramatizing Whitman stages his own demise. Empathetically merging with Lincoln, he defuses “Lin-coln's” structural power.

At the same time, however, Whitman's still-powerful need to compete with his beloved, with “Lincoln,” erupts in Section 15 when he compares the welfare of the living and the dead. Such comparisons were con-ventional in sentimental literature, where, as in Susanna Rowson's novel Charlotte Temple, they usually functioned as devices to resolve other-wise irreconcilable political and literary conflicts.[31] The belief that the dead are better off than the living also influenced how people thought about hardship. Consider the memoirs of Private Henry Robinson Berke-ley, a Confederate soldier who, like Peter Doyle, was a member of a Vir-ginia militia unit when the war began. Unlike Doyle, Berkeley lasted out the entire conflict, although he was captured in March 1865 and impris-oned at Fort Delaware, Delaware. Along with other Southern prisoners, he was released in mid-June on the condition that he take an oath of al-legiance to the United States government. Berkeley was a Virginia na-tive, and the son of a farmer. Though his future occupation was school-teaching, he was not a particularly reflective man and was thoroughly demoralized by the war's conclusion. He was convinced that Lincoln should have been in church rather than at the theater on that fatal Good Friday and was personally embittered by the rough treatment he and other Confederate prisoners received in the weeks following Lincoln's death, when there was talk of a national conspiracy afoot that caused Confederate prisoners to be subjected to further reprisals.

Searching for a way to conclude a diary that had become a record of his humiliations, Berkeley, who was by then waiting in Richmond for a ride back to his home in Hanover County, recorded:

As I had an hour, I thought I would walk a little way down Main Street and take a look at the burnt district. One could hardly tell where Main Street had been. It was one big pile of ruins from the Custom House to the wharf at Rocketts. At this point, the Yanks had collected all kinds of debris of war: cannon, muskets, bayonets, cartridge boxes, swords, broken guncarriages, broken

wagons, etc. I had never imagined that the Confederacy had one-half as many siege guns in and around Richmond. As I gazed sadly over all this war wreck-age for a few moments, my thoughts were with our noble dead, “the unre-turning brave.” Is it better with them or with us? We hope, aye, we almost know it is well with them. But who knows what the future holds for us; only God. I turned away and with a sad and gloomy heart bent my steps towards the Depot.[32]

In the midst of a still unfolding narrative, Berkeley's question—“Is it better with them or with us?”—cannot be answered. A Yankee-dominated life may no longer be tolerable for him, and as he steps to-ward the Depot, his shattered affections lie with the heroic dead. Whit-man, with greater freedom to shape his narrative, and less deference to an outcome-determining God, cannily and categorically asserts that whereas the living remain and suffer, the dead are fully at rest:

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,
The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd,
And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.

(LG, p. 336)[33]

Perhaps, after all, Whitman did feel some guilt about not having served in the war, guilt that provokes an unequal, even inelegant competition with the dead for primacy of suffering. Although he claims to have fled forth into “the hiding receiving night that talks not,” his flight from lan-guage into “unconscious scenery” is countermanded by the evidence of his text (LG, pp. 334, 333). Whitman's marked assertion of subjective privilege may also be intended to block other memories, specifically the failure of consciousness to sustain itself under the pressure of trau-matizing events. Whitman, for example, represses telltale memories of the hospitals, and of his personal crises in ministering to the wounded young soldiers whom he tried to comfort, with varying success. Joining hands with two ambiguously gendered companions, his “comrades in the night,” the oblivion-seeking speaker is prepared by “the song of the bird” to encounter the unorthodox parent whom he has always feared, the “Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,” and whom he now welcomes as a “strong deliveress” (LG, pp. 334, 335).

As he abandons his “war of words” and bids farewell to the deeply gendered poetry of the politically marked body, the “Lilacs” elegist

grasps at abstractions and, in Ramazani's terms, “hails a shadowy ma-ternal figure as origin and end.” But whereas Ramazani describes Whit-man as participating in a patriarchal, homosocial tradition that relegates women to the roles “of ineffectual muses, distracting nymphs, inade-quate mothers, and figures of death,”[34] we may also see him as turning away from a phallic economy of death not only toward an alliance with his shy and solitary brother, the graybrown hermit thrush, who floats “the carol of death, and a verse for him I love,” but toward an even more powerful alliance with the pre-oedipal mother. By reconnecting with her, the poet may turn back toward life.

Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.

(LG, p. 335)

In voicing his chant of fullest welcome to the unknown mother, Whit-man celebrates both the return to the intersubjective intimacy he associates with a feminine origin (“And the body gratefully nestling close to thee”) and the heroism of all those who, like him, persist in clinging to the familiar in the face of the unimaginable. Furthermore, in emphasiz-ing that the male dead do not suffer, the poet carves out an important role for the grieving wife and mother, with whom he is unambiguously identified. Faced with devastation, he holds both men and women ac-countable for their work of memory, “there in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.” This work proceeds beyond the borders of a bru-tally phallic economy, taking the Whitman persona, then, into a coun-try he has glimpsed before. Reconnecting with a maternal origin, Whit-man seeks to free himself and his nation from the violence engendered by a patriarchal past. This return is, however, as Ramazani and others have suggested, not without its cost, and in the next chapter I examine this matter from a somewhat different perspective.

“The death of the late President,” Abraham Lincoln had declared in July 1850, following the sudden death of Zachary Taylor, whom Whit-man had seen in New Orleans, “may not be without its use in remind-ing us that we, too, must die. Death, abstractly considered, is the same with the high as with the low; but practically, we are not so much aroused to the contemplation of our own mortal natures, by the fall of many undistinguished,

as that of one great, and well known name.”[35] Lincoln's death caused Whitman to contemplate the problem of death, “abstractly considered,” just as the deaths of many undistinguished people, includ-ing that of his civilian brother Andrew in 1863, contributed to his am-bivalently gendered sense of himself as a ghostly survivor.[36] In “Lilacs,” the poet of the body becomes the poet of the phallic body's tragedies. Despite Whitman's desire to free himself and the nation from guilty complicity in the war and in Lincoln's death by naturalizing death as, for example, “the black murk that hides the star!” and as “the cloud, the long black trail” (LG, p. 334), there linger the guilt-inducing stains of specifically human and, one imagines, mostly male actions. Perfuming “the grave of him I love,” the speaker seems to blame himself in Section 8 for not having prevented Lincoln's death, and to blame himself in Sec-tion 15 for not having fought in the war, with his comrades. Psychically battle-fatigued, “all splinter'd and broken” (LG, p. 336), he finds it nec-essary to insist, as I have remarked, that the young men who have died are fully at rest, whereas the remaining men, women, and children remain to suffer.

While suffering eventually defines the poem's richly complex idiom, Whitman stresses that life, “The miracle spreading bathing all,” emerges out of death, and that art must accommodate both. Throughout “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” as the speaker confronts both loss and aggression, there are ebbs and flows in his access to physical and psychic power. Cruel hands hold him powerless; he uses his hands to break off a sprig of lilac with its flower; he contributes his sprig of lilac to the coffin that slowly passes and then to all conceivable coffins, dis-covering joyously and paradoxically the copiousness of nature in his feverish efforts to celebrate death; he imagines himself as a tomb deco-rator hanging pictures on the walls of “the burial-house of him I love” (LG, p. 332); he holds hands with the thought and the knowledge, with the anticipation and the retrospective awareness of death; he hymns “the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death” in Section 14 (LG, p. 334); and, following his visionary experience in Section 15, he frees himself from “the hold of my comrades' hands” (LG, p. 336). Finally, in Section 16, his hands are at rest and he leaves the lilac with heart-shaped leaves “there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring” (LG, p. 337). He doesn't need to break it or to use it to smother his grief. He can afford to leave it alone.

Can it be, then, as Harold Bloom has wickedly suggested, that hands are more than merely totemistic in “Lilacs” and that the poem is centrally

concerned with masturbation? He explains that the sprig of lilac represents what the poet, in Section 25 of “Song of Myself,” calls his “live parts,” and that “the voice of the bird will represent those ardors so intense, so wrenched from Whitman, that he did not know he pos-sessed them.” Moreover, “a failed masturbation is the concealed refer-ence in Section 2 of the Lilacs elegy”:

O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul!

(LG, p. 329)

Bloom further explains that “the cruel hands are Whitman's own, as he vainly seeks relief from his repressed guilt, since the death of Father Abra-ham has rekindled the death, a decade before, of the drunken Quaker carpenter-father, Walter Whitman, Senior.”[37]

However implausibly lurid, Bloom's father-centered analysis accounts for the fact that Whitman writes like a man whose social world has col-lapsed because of his hero's death. This melodramatic perspective, as Bloom hints when he refers to “the supposed elegy for Lincoln” and then, several pages later, to the “elegy for President Lincoln,” reinforces our sense of the speaker's covert antagonism toward all undependable lovers—especially those who, like Whitman's father, proved themselves to be merely mortal. Hence, in part, the speaker's willingness to be seduced by death, the “Dark Mother.” If “Lilacs” takes as its subject the dream of an enduring socioerotic community, it tests this deeply personal fantasy against public history, and against the tragic history of American slavery. To the extent that this vividly imagined community turns out to be white and male, the dark mother is necessary to complete it. By the same token, the dark mother, the only dark person in the poem, remains a mystery. As a person, she cannot be known. However we choose to read this figure—does she exemplify the Africanist pres-ence?—it is clear that the concept of motherhood in the poem and in nineteenth-century America was subjected to extraordinary stresses. In the next chapter, I would like to consider some of them, as Whitman continued to seek personally gratifying solutions for the problems of de-mocracy and of America, which, in Democratic Vistas, he proposed to employ as “convertible terms.”

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