Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 April 2004
No one did more to sanctify and enshrine the image of Abraham Lincoln than Walt Whitman. The poet never met the president, but he embraced his image and claimed him as his own. In his “Death of Abraham Lincoln” speech, delivered on numerous occasions during the last 20 years of his life, Whitman involved himself in the cultural work of national definition, of posterity and legacy. He helped bridge the gap between complex personal history and official public memory. In service to the larger, national idea of union, democracy and selfless Americanism, Whitman's Lincoln, when compared to, for example Herndon's Life of Lincoln (1889), razed the contours of ambiguity and established the exemplary image of the “Martyr Chief.” The connection is both apt and ironic. What Whitman did for Lincoln in the aftermath of his death, others would do for the poet. Since Whitman's death in 1892, the poet's life and ideas have often been radically simplified; on other occasions his words have been recontextualized and appropriated to support a variety of different causes, concerns and ideologies. A driving factor in this process has been that, like Lincoln, Whitman's name carries with it a certain legitimacy. To evoke the approval of Whitman is to learn of the authority of an ideal, more perfect, America. And where Lincoln's name is inseparable from the American Civil War, Whitman has become most strongly associated with the metropolitan idea of New York, and Brooklyn in particular.