Chelsea for October 27

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Though in Erkkila’s essay, “Burying President Lincoln,” she asserts that, “Although Lincoln was shot on Good Friday and died the following day, Whitman avoids the obvious Lincoln—Christ symbolism [in “Where Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”] preferring instead the local symbolism of lilac and star, which were associated in his imagination with the time of Lincoln’s death,” (229) I find it almost impossible to extract the Christ imagery and symbolism from the way Whitman wrote about Lincoln.  Erikkila continues by claiming instead a “religious suggestiveness” (229) in the poem, which is very apparent, though merits a bit more attention in considering Whitman’s overall perception of Lincoln, the man.  Throughout the greater portion of Whitman’s poetry (excepting “Drum-Taps”), he seated himself as the omnipotent savior of America though throughout his writings and reminiscences of Lincoln he is dissolved and the president is elevated.  His revere of Lincoln, though not conveyed through a string of cliché metaphor, attributes to his (and our) inability to see him as anything other than a christ in Whitman’s work.

In “Where Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman uses both a “powerful western star” (459) (ironic that a star “in the east” was used to signify Chist’s birth in Bethlehem, suggesting Lincoln as an equal to the Christian Savior) and “Lilac blooming perennial” (459) (a flower that resurrects itself, if you will), he seats Lincoln in a place that would render him a Christ-figure.  Throughout the desperate elegiac tone of the poem, Whitman produces bits of imagery that lend themselves to this comparison, such as “with every leaf a miracle” (459) in reference to the lilac.  He also suggests the mourning of the churches themselves when he discusses the journey of Lincoln’s burial processional in, “The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs” (460).  By the last section of the poem, though the speaker departs from the lilac, he knows that it will return with spring (466), much like Christ is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion.

This famous elegy to Lincoln is not however the only place in which Whitman near-literally seems to worship him.  In “Death of Abraham Lincoln,” Whitman refers to Lincoln as the nation’s “first great Martyr Chief” (1071).  The capitalization of this title suggests the importance of Lincoln’s martyrdom as if no other person who ever died for a cause could ever near the sacrifice that Lincoln made for the American people. He also describes Lincoln as having “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” as well as the “foundation and tie of all, as the future would grandly develop” (787).  Whitman even refers to the Battle of Bull Run as a “crucifixion day” (735) for Lincoln.  How’s that for obvious Christ-symbolism, Erkkila?

 Whitman seems, if I may use another heavy-handed religious term, to have desired to become Lincoln’s disciple.  Despite his limited interaction with Lincoln, a lot of what Whitman attempted to do hinged on, or at least mirrored, Lincoln’s own political and social moves.  For Whitman, Lincoln embodied the essence of democracy, the very thing that Whitman attempted throughout his life to encourage and sustain.  His love for Lincoln equated his love for the Union as he seemed often to fuse the two together.  Whitman’s elevation of both above himself easily cast Lincoln in the role of savior as it was the Union that needed the saving.

Chelsea’s Material Culture Museum Entry: Ford’s Theatre

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Presidential Box 1865

Ford’s Theatre Now

Ford’s Theatre sits at 511 10th Street NW, the site originally occupied by the First Baptist Church of Washington which was built in 1833.  In 1859, the congregation abandoned the building when they merged with the Fourth Baptist Congregation formed on 13th Street.  After a few years of occasional use for music performances, the building gained the interest of John T. Ford, a theatre entrepreneur from Baltimore who arrived in Washington D.C. in 1861.  On December 10 of that year, despite controversy from some members of the congregation who predicted “a dire fate for anyone who turned the former house of worship into a theatre,” (Olszewski 7) the church leased the space to Ford.  His contract allowed him to rent the building for five years with the promise of an opportunity to buy after that time.

After a brief sublease to George Christy, who ran the building as “The George Christy Opera House,” Ford closed the building and began renovation on February 28, 1862.  He invested 10,000 dollars in new construction and remodeling and opened the building three weeks later on March 19 under the name “Ford’s Atheneum” where ticket prices ranged from a quarter to a dollar per seat.  The athenaeum was quite successful and won the patronage of many wealthy and famous individuals including Abraham Lincoln whose first visit to the theatre was May 28, 1862 and who said of his experience, “Some people find me wrong to attend the theatre, but it serves me well to have a good laugh with a crowd of people” (Good 3).

Tragedy first struck the theatre on December 30, 1862 when a fire caused by a defective gas meter broke out in the cellar beneath the stage.  The fire blazed through everything, leaving only the blackened walls standing.  Fortunately no one was killed during the incident, but as Ford was only partially covered by fire insurance, the event left him with an estimated loss of 20,000 dollars.

With a refusal to lose heart, Ford began right away with plans to build a bigger and better theatre at the same site.  He wanted to expand the theatre to the north and add an additional wing to the south.  He hired James J. Gifford to design and supervise the reconstruction which began in February of 1863.  Though Ford had refused help from theatrical colleagues who offered to sponsor benefits to raise the money he lost in the fire, he welcomed the financial backing the project received from wealthy and influential Washington D.C. businessmen.  Though the reconstruction met a series of delays due to cave-ins from quicksand beneath the foundation and war-time supply delay problems, the building known as “Ford’s New Theatre” opened on August 27, 1863.

Between 1863 and 1865, the theatre thrived.  Many praised the theatre for its magnificent elegance and comfortable ventilation due to the three large hooded ventilators and ten hatches which provided the perfect amount of outside air.  Few theatres rivaled Ford’s for these few years.  Unfortunately, on April 14, 1865, the theatre became infamous as the location of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln during a performance of Our American Cousin.  One spectator recalled the event, “It is impossible to describe the intense excitement that prevailed in the theatre.  The audience arose as one person and horror was stamped on every face” (Good 45).  In the two seasons before the assassination, the theatre produced 495 evening performances, eight of which were attended by the president including “The Marble Heart” on November 9, 1863 starring none other than John Wilkes Booth, his future assassin.  

After the assassination, Ford’s Theatre was guarded by federal troops until July 7, 1865, the day the conspirators were hanged.  On July 8, the theatre was returned to Ford only to be seized on July 10 by order of Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.  Some time after this, the theatre was leased to the government and then purchased by an act of Congress in 1866. 

In 1867, Ford’s Theatre was taken over by the US Army in order to house post-Civil War medical activities of the Army Surgeon General’s Office.  The building held an archive of Civil War medical records which were essential for verification of veteran’s pension claims, the Army Medical Museum, editorial offices for preparation of the multi-volume Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, and the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office.  When Army needs outgrew the capacity of the theatre, several units were moved in 1887 to a new building known as the Army Medical Museum and Library, located on the Mall.

In June of 1893, a third tragedy occurred at the former theatre; part of the overloaded interior collapsed, killing 22 and injuring 65 federal troops working in the office of the Adjutant General for compiling official service records of Civil War veterans.  Ford’s Theatre was then closed by an order of Congress and was used as public document storage until 1932 when the Lincoln Museum opened inside which currently contains historical artifacts including the derringer John Wilkes Booth used as a murder weapon as well as a replica of the coat Lincoln wore when he was shot.

After public interest in restoring the building to its original condition grew following World War II, preliminary investigation began in 1955 when the National Capital Region prepared an engineering study under Public Law 372, 83d Congress.  Additional funds were given under Public Law 86-455, 86th Congress, which authorized the National Park Service to begin with the research and prepare for construction, which was eventually completed in 1967.

Ford’s Theatre reopened in 1968 and according to its current website’s record of past seasons, ran a complete season of shows including a Gala Opening which was featured as a CBS TV special, John Brown’s Body, Comedy of Errors, and She Stoops to Conquer (Ford’s Theatre).  Since that time, the theatre produced full seasons of performances until August 2007 when it closed for its most extensive renovation since the 1960s.  The theatre reopened in February 2009 fully equipped with new seats, upgraded sound and lighting equipment, improved heating and AC, renovated restrooms, elevators, a new lobby with concessions, a new parlor for special events, and a series of updated stage capabilities.  As this year marked the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, Ford’s Theatre is working toward becoming a major center for learning where people can examine the events leading up to the death of the 16th president of the United States; the theatre’s mission is “to celebrate the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and to explore the American experience through theatre and education” (Ford’s Theatre) and is now back to running full seasons of performances.


Works Cited

Good, Timothy S., ed. We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. Print.

Ford’s Theatre. History of Medicinie. United States National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 13 Sep. 2006. Web. 16 Oct. 2009. <>

Ford’s Theatre. Web. 16 Oct. 2009. <>

Olszewski, George J. Restoration of Ford’s Theatre. Washington, D.C.: US. Government Printing Office, 1963. Print.


Chelsea for October 20

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In going through this week’s reading, it occurred to me that there is another “multitude” of Whitman’s that we have only briefly touched on that is quite worth discussing – Whitman as a father figure.  Particularly throughout the Calder essay, where the tender Whitman we’ve spoken of seems at his best, Whitman’s envy and revere of mothers and shame of the lack of responsibility in fathers show a side of Whitman that seems under-addressed, particularly with his interactions with soldiers during the war.  These thoughts and position carry over into Whitman’s relationships with the boys he writes of in Drum-Taps and his ability to look at them as a father might, makes him an ideal candidate to care for them.

In Calder’s essay, she explains that though Whitman did not think marriage was in the cards for his life and though he did not envy husbands their wives, he did envy their ability to have children.  She even quotes Whitman as saying to a little girl that he wished he knew her when she chirps, “I know you.”  This image of Whitman as an affectionate father is much more appealing to me than Whitman “the stalker” or Whitman “the creeper” as our class has so affectionately named him.  His desire (though he is seemingly unable) to have children, mobilizes him into “adopting” the soldiers as his own sons.  His conversation with the little girl is reminiscent of “The Wound-Dresser” when he writes, “One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you, / Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you” (444). 

 Throughout Drum-Taps, Whitman also refers to the soldiers as “sons” or “boys” as a father might to his child; he also does this in his letters to Peter Doyle, despite the two’s obvious intimate relationship.  Though this may be viewed as merely an age difference marker, the tenderness in which he refers to the soldiers suggests more of a relationship between him and them.  It is almost as if Whitman, having no children of his own, asserts himself as the father of the American people, thus adding to his lengthy list of titles.  As Calder points out, Whitman often called “the institution of father a failure” (198) and posited this as the reason many boys were driven to enlist.  This is yet another area in which Whitman’s desire to mend America’s mistakes manifests itself though Whitman offering himself as a means by which to fix the problem – an honorable pursuit, I think.

 Drum-Taps has ironically given me a better picture of Whitman, the man.  When he stops talking about being the savior of the nation, it seems he is better at actually being it.  Despite his more romantic relationships, it is more rewarding to view Whitman as a father rather than a lusty old man taking advantage of invalid soldiers.  Viewing him this way allows Whitman to be seen as a man who truly wanted to rekindle and reunite the nation through tender affection and love, the kind of unconditional love a parent would give a child.

Chelsea for October 6

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An interesting nuance between Drum-Taps and the rest of Walt Whitman’s work is his veer from the more personal address poem to a broader and more all-encompassing form of address.  In these poems it seems he becomes less the prophet and removes himself almost as if he is letting the war speak for itself.  This is especially noticeable in places where the speaker is not necessarily and specifically Whitman.

One of the ways he gives voice to the war is through dividing poems into roles where a certain labeled speaker narrates that part of the poem.  This is not something we have seen before from Whitman and yet it occurs in several places in Drum-Taps.  For instance, “Song of the Banner at Daybreak” is divided into several speakers: Poet, Pennant, Child, Father, and Banner.  Though the poet can arguably represent Whitman himself (“O bard out of Manhattan”(423) etc.), by labeling the poet as Poet instead of “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs” (50), as in “Song of Myself,” Whitman takes a step back. 

After reading “Specimen Days” last week and Drum-Taps this week, it is becoming more apparent that Whitman approached his work very differently during the Civil War.  For him, the war was more than just unnecessary violence; it was a blatant attack at the heart of the entire premise of America.  By removing himself from “Song of the Banner at Daybreak,” Whitman shows just how difficult it was for him to assess and come to terms with his crumbling country.  The poet here still speaks out as omniscient, though the other speakers (particularly the banner and pennant) and even at times the poet himself seem to suggest that the poet is not completely sufficient in getting at the heart of how the war was affecting people.  The poet even explains that he learned from the child in, “My hearing and tongue are come to me, (a little child taught me,)” (425).

The child in this poem also seems to be the most distinct voice of reason, which is perhaps Whitman’s way of suggesting that America return to a place nearer its birth, when the country was filled with a greater innocence, courage, and child-like wonderment of the American flag which, according to the child, is “so broad it covers the whole sky.”  The father provides a weathered contrast to this example, as he calls the child “foolish babe” and claims that he fills him “with anguish.”  The father attempts to get the child to focus on other things like money and property (sound familiar?), while the child prefers to focus on the banner and pennant, which represent America.

The poem closes with the poet’s longest monologue of the section; he claims within the last two lines, “I see but you, O warlike pennant! O banner so broad, with stripes, I sing you only, / Flapping up there in the wind” (426).  Here, Whitman is not singing of himself as before, here he sings only of America and those things that represent it.  This shift for Whitman ironically may help his readers to connect with him as they focus on the tenderness and real desperation with which he confronts America.

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