Leaves of Grass

What is the imagery of American identity?


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Whitman lived through some of the most tumultuous years in the history of the United States. He was a witness of, and participant in, the United States Civil War which lasted from 1861 to 1865. Whitman chronicles this profound historic event in the sections "Drum-Taps" and "Memories of President Lincoln." "Drum-Taps" begins with a celebration of a call to arms. Whitman sees the promise of democracy as yet unfulfilled, chiefly because of the injustice of slavery and the inability of America's population to achieve its hope of individuality. The Civil War was an antidote to this evil. As the war draws on, however, Whitman's tone becomes less celebratory. Death becomes the reality and Whitman laments at brothers killing brothers. The summation of this death is the killing of Abraham Lincoln, the man that Whitman saw as a model of leadership and greatness. In his most famous poem, "O Captain! My Captain!," Whitman compares Lincoln to the fallen captain of a ship that has come through much trial and tribulation. He encourages the country to sing for its victory, but he admits that he can only mourn for the fallen leader.