cover image LINCOLN AND WHITMAN: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington

LINCOLN AND WHITMAN: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington

Daniel Mark Epstein, . . Ballantine, $24.95 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-345-45799-8

Poet and biographer Epstein (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, about Edna St. Vincent Millay) covers the same ground canvassed most recently, and more ably, by Roy Morris Jr. in his much-praised The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War . Where Epstein falters is in his basic paradigm: a narrative that insists on interleaving the "parallel"—but never intersecting—lives of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. The two never met. They shared no common ground in politics—Whitman, a copperhead Democrat, a bigot and no abolitionist, thought the Northern cause in the Civil War absurd. That Lincoln read and was impressed by Leaves of Grass is questioned by most scholars, yet Epstein takes it on face value. Later, moved by the tragic drama of the president's murder, Whitman wrote two elegiac poems ("When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "Captain, My Captain"). His subsequent "Specimen Days and Collect" included diary memoranda referring to glimpses of Lincoln around Washington, and in old age the impoverished Whitman sometimes raised money for himself by giving talks containing his reminiscences of Lincoln and wartime Washington. But the "parallels" between these two very different lives don't hold together the thread of Epstein's narrative. As well, readers well versed in the story of Whitman and his milieu during the early 1860s will be annoyed by several small errors. (Example: The New York poet and farmer Myron Benton was not a friend of Whitman's, though he was a fan of the poet's and had a mutual friend in John Burroughs.) (Feb.)