An American Procession
The Brahmin historian Francis Parkman complained in 1862 that Lincoln was the very type of character which democracy had given to the world, the 'feeble and ungainly mouthpiece of the North.' Thirty years later Parkman was deploring Lincoln's displacement of Washington as a hero to schoolboys.
Hawthorne, observing Lincoln in 1862 for the Atlantic Monthly, jocularly noted that
there is no describing his lengthy awkwardness, nor the uncouthness of his movement; and yet it seemed as if I had been in the habit of seeing him daily, and had shaken hands with him a thousand times in some village street; so true was he to the aspect of the pattern American, though with a certain extravagance which, possibly, I exaggerated still further by the delighted eagerness with which I took it in.The Atlantic did not choose to publish Hawthorne's condescension. Emerson, also observing Lincoln in 1862, allowed that the president was 'correct enough, not vulgar, as described.' Lincoln's delight in telling stories reminded Emerson of Harvard reunions.
In Lincoln's lifetime Whitman was the only major writer to describe him with love. Whitman identified Lincoln with himself in the worshipful fashion that became standard after Lincoln's death. That Lincoln was a class issue says a good deal about the prejudices of American society in the East. A leading New Yorker, George Templeton Strong, noted in his diary that while he never disavowed the 'lank and hard featured man,' Lincoln was 'despised and rejected by a third of the community, and only tolerated by the other two-thirds.' Whitman the professional man of the people had complicated reasons for loving Lincoln. The uneasiness about him among America's elite was based on the fear that this unknown, untried man, elected without administrative experience (and without a majority) might not be up to his 'fearful task.'
After his death, Lincoln's supreme competence and firmness became such an article of American faith that he was enshrined as the purest type of American. Henry James, recalling the war period in his autobiography, condemned Lincoln's unhappy successor, Andrew Johnson, because he was common and lackluster by contrast with the 'mould-smashing mask' of Abraham Lincoln. It was the underlying political despair, the doubt that the federal government could maintain itself, that centered so much understandable anxiety on Lincoln. Slavery had for forty years divided the country: it was not until slavery died in the war, until the country under his leadership proved that 'a new birth of freedom' was real, that Lincoln could be seen to be the very reverse of 'vacillating.'
Lincoln was not a revolutionary but a supreme nationalist. The Union had to be preserved at any cost. Since democracy in America was a revolutionary fact in the nineteenth-century world—Whitman always referred to Europe as 'feudal'—there were too many powerful interests at home and abroad opposed to what Lincoln the campaigner joined as 'free soil, free labor, free men,' for Lincoln the war president not to recognize that he was upholding more than a national cause. 'Thanks to all: for the great republic—for the principle it lives by and keeps alive—for man's vast future—thanks to all.' If it was difficult in the century of American superpower for an Edmund Wilson to share Lincoln's fear for his threatened nation, it was still difficult to understand Lincoln's reluctance to press emancipation when he honestly believed in the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence. And how to reconcile the 'suffering' and 'Christlike' Lincoln with the driving and even authoritarian president who suspended habeas corpus and violated individual rights granted by the Constitution? Although steel was not manufactured in great quantity until near the end of the war, Lincoln was capable of saying, 'My mind is like a piece of steel—very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.'
It was Lincoln's peculiar honesty—the total reliance on his innermost promptings that one associates with genius, least of all with politicians captive to public relations—that still makes him unfathomable and endlessly interesting. None of the contemporary literary folk who could have analyzed Lincoln's writings as a subject worthy of themselves ever did so. Henry Adams's feisty elder brother, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., was the first to lead black troops through captured Richmond, and may have had enough experience of war to know what went into the Second Inaugural Address. From the field he wrote to his father, the American minister in London, who was not an admirer of the president.
What do you think of the inaugural? That rail-splitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day. Once at Gettysburg and now again on a greater occasion he has shown a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour which we should not expect from orators or men of the schools. This inaugural strikes me in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all time the historical keynote of the war; in it a people seemed to speak in the sublimely simple utterance of ruder times. What will Europe think of this utterance of the rude ruler, of whom they have nourished so lofty a contempt? Not a prince or a minister in all Europe could have risen to such an equality with the occasion.
It was Lincoln's poised, patient, and unswervable spirit of command, triumphing finally over the bloodiest American factionalism, that made him important to Whitman. Lincoln was the greatest possible example to the 'failed' poet whose life was a perpetual crisis. Until the war released him from having to create his own legend, Whitman had proclaimed himself in transcendentalist fashion the author of his own fate. The expanding energies and manifest destiny of 'these States' had been the counterpoint to his vaunted harmony and even supremacy within himself.
The war now moved him on, sweeping him into the anxiety and suffering of civil war. Before Whitman could locate his brother, says Whitman's biographer Gay Wilson Alien, 'he had to pass a huge pile of amputated arms and legs lying under a tree in front of an army hospital. This would have been a shocking encounter at any time, but at the moment the thought that some of George's own limbs might be in that horrible heap almost overcame him.'
Wounded, sick, dying soldiers were being overlooked; crippled and discharged soldiers seeking their back pay were uselessly trudging to the army paymaster's office. There Whitman took a job copying documents and soon settled on the hospital visits that became his wartime service. He was to call himself a 'wound dresser,' a title given by a disciple arranging Whitman's wartime letters to his mother. He was nothing of the sort. But although Whitman made a myth of 'his' war, as he did of everything else, it is impossible to imagine Whitman without the war, his charged personal observations of soldiers in Drum-Taps, and his vivid prose record in Specimen Days. Everything Whitman wrote about the war shows what it did to age him, ripen him, and perhaps finally kill him. To kill him not through the paralysis the boastful man previously in 'perfect health' felt he had incurred in the hospitals, but through the mass suffering that was smashing its way past all the pretenses of his lonely ego.