Poet of the Nation
Whitman worked out lists of expressions for grief, suffering,
and compassion to help formulate his poems of the Civil War. His Drum-Taps,
the most important book of poetry to emerge from the war period,
included accounts of calls to arms and of the personal heroism
and comradeship of battlefields and encampments. At the book's
core was "The Wound-Dresser," Whitman's somber testament to the
terrible afflictions of men in army hospitals and the quiet courage
of those who daily cared for them. In his elegiac "Ashes of Soldiers," shown
in Whitman's hand, the poet mourned the dead from all regions of
the country and captured the high cost in sorrow paid to preserve
By the time Whitman's Drum-Taps was published in May
1865, the Civil War had ended, and President Lincoln was dead.
Whitman quickly prepared a Sequel booklet of eighteen
poems, including his two famous Lincoln laments, which was never
issued as a separate volume. Instead, he bound it in with this
second issue of Drum-Taps. The second edition includes "When
Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom'd," Whitman's great elegy on
universal death and national healing, using the eternal images
of lilac, star and thrush. However, it was the more traditional,
rhymed dirge, "O Captain, My Captain," that the public loved. It
is shown in a proof sheet for a reprint, with Whitman's corrections.
"I see the President almost every day"
Walt Whitman first saw Abraham Lincoln in person in New York in
1861, as the newly elected President passed through on his way
to Washington. The poet often witnessed the leader of the country
as the two moved about the nation's capital, and he confessed to
an intense personal admiration for the man. Whitman attached a
note to this engraving of Lincoln observing that it was "one of
the latest taken before he was shot [&] the most satisfactory
picture of A. L. I have ever seen . . . looks just like I saw him
last on the balcony of the National Hotel."
Death of Lincoln
Whitman wrote a series of newspaper pieces on the war. These he
reworked with his notes into Memoranda During the War (1875-1876).
In 1879 he gave his first oration entitled "Death of Lincoln," on
Lincoln's meaning to the nation. It included a dramatic account
of the assassination at Ford's Theatre. As a young man Whitman
aspired to be an orator, and the Lincoln lecture helped fulfill
this ambition. He gave the reading several times between 1879 and
1890, in Boston, Philadelphia, Camden, and New York--most memorably
at Madison Square Theater in April 1887.
Prophet for the Nation
In 1871 Whitman published two pamphlets dealing with questions
of national character and the soul. The visionary title poem of Passage
to India began with New World exploration and development,
then moved on to mystical and universal meanings. Democratic
Vistas was a harsh critique of American corruption and materialism.
In it Whitman voiced hope of redemption through renewed commitment
to spirituality and egalitarian ideals. He later incorporated revised
versions of both these works into other publications.
Washington, D.C.: J.S. Redfield, 1871
Rare Book & Special Collections
Whitman was optimistic about the democratic promise of the American
West. His first tour of the country outside the East was in 1848,
when he and his brother Jeff went to New Orleans, where Whitman
worked briefly on the local Crescent newspaper. The two
returned via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes
and saw Niagara Falls. In 1879 Whitman traveled to the Great Plains
and the Rockies. He exulted in the panoramic and sublime landscapes
and wrote about the experience from St. Louis in this letter to
friend Peter Doyle. In 1880 he toured Canada with his close confidante
Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke. On the map above is a catalogue of Whitman's
travels in North America.