Collective memory is an aggregation of societal regard and recollection for a person or subject through group discussion, negotiation, and contestation (Zelizer 214). Abraham Lincoln is remembered in many different ways throughout history through various literary and artistic means. These works are mediums through which collective memory of Lincoln is assumed. Through Walt Whitman’s poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, we can distinguish multiple different facets of the collective memory of Abraham Lincoln.
Collective memory is not constant, but changes processually with the introduction of new information, ideas, and cultural norms. This transformative process can sometimes occur within individual, without the shared memory of the collective group (Zelizer 220). While Whitman was initially neutral in his feelings towards Lincoln, as the Civil War progressed, as referenced in multiple diary entries, he grew to respect the President more, particularly for his leadership with the ending of slavery as time went by, and when Lincoln was assassinated, Whitman was truly saddened and in grave mourning for the late President. Indeed, another poem he wrote, “O Captain, My Captain,” Whitman calls for deep admiration and rejoices in “the captain’s” (Lincoln’s) contributions to winning the war, reuniting the nation, and abolishing slavery (Brennan). Whether Whitman’s stance of the late President was individual or collective, these words reflect the processual transformation of Lincoln’s collective memory in which his death altered the way Whitman believes he should be tributed in at least two of his works.
While collective memory often requires some kind of consensus, it is often not based on a set of logic, and often, different circumstances can bring back specific ways of remembering someone or something, making collective memory quite unpredictable (Zelizer 221). During his life, Lincoln was an incredibly controversial figure. Both the North and the South found reasons to believe Lincoln abused his power as President. Americans in the North were opposed of his oversight of habeas corpus law, which led to the imprisonment of thousands of suspected protestors and traitors without trial, while Americans in the South were angry over the Emancipation Proclamation in freeing the Southern state slaves in retaliation to the formation of the Confederacy and for his dissemination of the Confederacy (Smithsonian). Right after Lincoln’s death, Whitman wrote When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, honoring the late President and grieving over his death. He metaphorizes Lincoln as the “powerful western fallen star” (Whitman, stanza 2), mourning that the “great star disappeared” (Whitman, stanza 2). His poem only references Lincoln in a positive light, demonstrating his reverence for the man, and failing to note any of the controversies surrounding his presidential terms. This work marks the unpredictability of collective memory: it is doubtful his memory would have been as revered if he had not been assassinated.
Though collective memory can be an aggregations of multiple different circumstances and ideas from multiple different sources, it is rarely absolutely complete. Each different piece of the collective from each source is a partial memory which serves to try to reproduce the whole picture as best as possible (Zelizer 225). Whitman’s descriptions of Lincoln in both When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and “O Captain, My Captain!” remember Lincoln for his leadership, and shock over the loss of a great man whom he believes all Americans should have been in mourning for. However, these perceptions were not necessarily shared by all who knew of Lincoln’s death. While both Lincoln champions and opponents could universally accept the work Lincoln put into his presidency, the particular collective memories of opposing groups was interpreted differently: some mourned, some – particularly those in the North and South who were angry with his political decisions – rejoiced, and others, namely former slaves, were fearful of the return of slavery (Boston Globe). Each of these sentiments did have one undeniable collective memory: that Lincoln was a major icon for the abolition of slavery.
Combining the usable and material characteristics of the collective memory of Lincoln’s death means that these memories can be used tangibly in politics and in culture. Whitman did not once mention Lincoln’s name in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, but it was so apparent what the poem was referencing. Jerome Loving, Whitman biographer, stated that “traditionally elegies do not mention the name of the deceased in order to allow the lament to have universal application” (Loving, 100). Indeed, the poem had many succeeding cultural uses, both in literature and in music. The author T. S. Eliot is believed to have used Whitman’s poem to fashion his own poem The Wasteland, in which he mentions lilacs and April in the opening lines and later makes references to “dry grass singing” in order to allude to the death of a woman and an apocalyptic desert waste (Eliot). Whitman’s poem also generated many musical renditions. After World War I, Gustav Holst, an English composer, utilized lyrics from the last section of the poem in his Ode to Death, mourning the loss of his friends during the war (Sullivan, Jack. New World Symphonies: How American Culture Changed European Music). A neoclassical composer from UC Berkeley, Roger Sessions, composed a cantata using the poem, and dedicated it to the memories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy after their assassinations in 1968 (Steinberg). These works, among many others, are used to commemorate those they were dedicated for. Through When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Whitman set a precedent for Lincoln and others whose collective memories remain overwhelmingly heroic after tragic losses.
“A Nation United in Mourning Lincoln? Think Again – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/02/22/nation-united-mourning-lincoln-think-again/IDHTh3UGZc0caJqv9FptXK/story.html>.
Brennan, Danial. “Living Lincoln.” Living Lincoln. 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <http://livinglincoln.web.unc.edu/2015/04/15/o-captain-my-captain-walt-whitman/>.
Eliot, TS. The Waste Land. New York: Horace Liveright, 1922,
Jerome Loving. WW: Song of Himself, 100.
“Lincoln’s Contested Legacy.” Smithsonian. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lincolns-contested-legacy-44978351/?no-ist>.
Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 252–255.
Whitman, Walt. “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Zelizer, Barbie. Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies. 1995. 214 – 239. Print.