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Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington Paperback – January 11, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

During the final two years of the Civil War, Walt Whitman lived in a Spartan rented room a few rutted blocks north of the White House. The poet and the President who inspired his most popular poem ("O Captain! My Captain!") and his most beautiful ("When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd") never met. But Whitman often planted himself along the route of Lincoln's carriage as it rattled to the President's summer retreat, and the two men would exchange grave, friendly nods. Years later, Whitman, palsied but still Jovian, lectured about the great man to a Gilded Age audience that included Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Andrew Carnegie, and General Sherman. Epstein, an accomplished poet as well as a biographer, imbues his tale of two lives with a natural sense of detail and period that revivifies the familiar figures he writes about.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (January 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345458001
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345458001
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #616,031 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Daniel Mark Epstein has written more than fifteen books of poetry, biography, and history, including Lincoln and Whitman, which received an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, named one of the top ten books of 2008 by the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Baltimore.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By James Hiller VINE VOICE on February 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Two behemoth men at a time of great crisis in our country, manage to find themselves in the same city at the same time, and the great mystery becomes, do they meet? This question is addressed in the highly enjoyable and highly readable book, Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington". In this tome, the reader discovers a deeper understanding of both Lincoln and Whitman, amazingly, through the eyes of each other.
It seems natural to have both of these men appear in a book with each other, as the two are linked somewhat through the times in which they lived and the recognition of their stunning intellect. And the book reads very naturally, moving from one story to another without any interruption. The Lincoln and Whitman presented in the book are demystified, and very much human. Perhaps the closeness of their supposed contact allows us a literary entrance into their lives. As Whitman sympathizes with Lincoln, so do we. As Lincoln wonders about the wild man and shows him respect, so do we, building on connections with each other that are timeless.
One thing that struck me was Whitman's volunteer efforts in hospitals in the DC area. Knowing that he did that, I never knew just how deeply it effected him and the lives of the soldiers that he visited. Well documented, even with quotes from Whitman's own letters, he expresses his care and concern for the men, many of whom suffered very painful deaths, but were someone appeased by the poet who talked with them and held their hand. It might be tempting to draw conclusions based on Whitman's sexuality, but Epstein respects the poet, and his readers, enough not to do that.
Refreshingly, the author doesn't shy away at all from Whitman's romantic life, detailing the men that inhabited his life.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Amanda on March 16, 2006
Format: Paperback
Daniel Mark Epstein succeeds at what seems simple, but in truth is a daunting task: combining the literary and the historical in a moving, evocative narrative. The book gracefully moves between and across the lives of Lincoln and Whitman, with a cathartic spirit uniting the stories of both men. Epstein makes no claims that the spiritual union was, in reality, anything more than a parallel, largely reliant on the troubled times (and Whitman's obsession...or coincidence). There is a somewhat amplified mysticism surrounding Lincoln and Whitman as "characters" in this historical narrative, but such characterization errs more often on the positive than it does otherwise. The parallels between the lives of both men are compelling, revealing, and informative, and the ending is truly poignant. Civil War Washington also comes alive with a mapmaker's eye and a storyteller's gift for detail. Wonderful!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Prof. cjt on September 28, 2005
Format: Paperback
Please note that the Publisher's Weekly review is wildly inaccurate itself. Whitman was not a copperhead, and he certainly did not think the Union's cause in the war was absurd. I wonder if the reviewer is confusing Whitman with Hawthorne, but if not, clearly he is not a Whitman scholar. Do copperheads publish recruitment poems in major Northern publication (Beat! Beat! Drums! in the Boston Evening Transcript, the New York Leader and Harpers Weekly)? Do they consider joining the fight, as Whitman actually did despite being in his early 40s? No, Whitman actually had ambivalent feelings about Lincoln before the 1860 election, he opposed Republican efforts to centralize governmental power, and he argued for peace before the war began, but once it did, he was behind the effort, and after going to Fredricksburg to find his brother and subsequently serving in some of the army's hospitals, he still was essentially behind it, despite his concerns about the manner in which is was conducted, his deep sadness for the fratricidal nature of it, and his concerns for its potential to open the door for post-war anti-democratic problems.

Epstein's book is flawed, I think, because it refuses to admit that Whitman dared to argue outside of Lincolnian rhetoric, but this is a matter of critical differences between us. The difference is that when my study of Lincoln's cultural narrative and its influence on American thought and literature is published with its chapter on Whitman within (look for it in a few years!), any argument with Epstein will have behind it months of research. And you can be assured that I would never be so irresponsible as to tell people not to read a book if I did not have the critical foundations to make such a recommendation.

Eric Foner is a respected scholar, a professor at Columbia. Amazon would do well not to pair a review from someone like him with one so obviously written out of ignorance.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By W. C HALL VINE VOICE on January 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a profoundly moving work, which should be read with pleasure by any admirer of the Great Emancipator or America's Great Poet. Although Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman are dead, their spirits live; and in this volume, Daniel Mark Epstein has again clothed them in flesh and blood and restored the breath of life. You will find yourself in the Lincoln and Herndon law office in 1857 as the merits of Leaves Of Grass are debated by the law partners and their young clerks; you will stand alongside Whitman on the corner of Fourteenth and L streets in Washington in 1863 as he awaits the president and the opportunity to offer a friendly wave.
As far as history knows, the two men never formally met, though they came tantalizingly close to doing so on more than one occasion. Yet as Epstein notes in the subtitle of this book, they lived parallel lives in Civil War Washington. While Lincoln struggled to hold the union together, Whitman tenderly nursed the young men who were maimed by the tens of thousands on the great battlefields of that war. While Lincoln struggled with the insurgency in his own ranks from Treasury Secretary Samuel Chase, Whitman vainly pursued a federal job in the secretary's domain. Although Whitman had already created the bulk of his greatest works by 1865, the death of Lincoln provided the well-spring for a glorious last hurrah, including the grand panorama of "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" and the poet's best known offspring, "O Captain, My Captain."
Indeed, the assassination only strengthened the bond linking these two men of genius. Especially poignant is the last chapter, which takes place 22 years after Booth's dark deed.
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