Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time

A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday

July 30, 2021

 

from “Death of Abraham Lincoln”

by Walt Whitman

 

“Through the general hum following the stage pause, with the change of positions, came the muffled sound of a pistol-shot.”—Walt Whitman

 

As the congressional hearing into the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington D. C. begins I thought it might be sobering to look at another act of political violence from the past. The Paragraph of the Week comes from Walt Whitman’s well-known essay “Death of Abraham Lincoln” published in 1879. Whitman appears to be reporting as an eyewitness but was actually using the description given to him by his partner, Peter Doyle. Whitman was in New York preparing Drum Taps for press at the time of the shooting, but Doyle was at Ford’s Theater. The Paragraph of the Week is so long that I cut it in two, the second part serving as the commentary this week. Whitman’s prose is ornate, but the two paragraphs, taken together, give a dramatic picture of the events of the evening when Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

The Paragraph of the Week (Part 1)

 

The President came betimes, and, with his wife, witness’d the play from the large stage-boxes of the second tier, two thrown into one, and profusely draped with the National flag. The acts and scenes of the pieces—one of those singularly written compositions which have at least the merit of giving entire relief to an audience engaged in mental action or business excitements and cares during the day, as it makes not the slightest call on either the moral, emotional, esthetic, or spiritual nature—a piece, (“Our American Cousin,”) in which, among other characters, so call’d, a Yankee, certainly such a one as was never seen, or the least like it ever seen, in North America, is introduced in England, with a varied fol-de-rol of talk, plot, scenery, and such phantasmagoria as goes to make up a modern popular drama—had progress’d through perhaps a couple of its acts, when in the midst of this comedy, or non-such, or whatever it is to be call’d, and to offset it, or finish it out, as if in Nature’s and the great Muse’s mockery of those poor mimes, came interpolated that scene, not really or exactly to be described at all, (for on the many hundreds who were there it seems to this hour to have left a passing blur, a dream, a blotch)—and yet partially to be described as I now proceed to give it. There is a scene in the play representing a modern parlor, in which two unprecedented English ladies are inform’d by the impossible Yankee that he is not a man of fortune, and therefore undesirable for marriage-catching purposes; after which, the comments being finish’d, the dramatic trio make exit, leaving the stage clear for a moment. At this period came the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

 

—Walt Whitman

Paragraph of the Week (Part 2)

 

Great as all its manifold train, circling round it, and stretching into the future for many a century, in the politics, history, art, &c., of the New World, in point of fact the main thing, the actual murder, transpired with the quiet and simplicity of any commonest occurrence—the bursting of a bud or pod in the growth of vegetation, for instance. Through the general hum following the stage pause, with the change of positions, came the muffled sound of a pistol-shot, which not one-hundredth part of the audience heard at the time—and yet a moment’s hush—somehow, surely, a vague startled thrill—and then, through the ornamented, draperied, starr’d and striped space-way of the President’s box, a sudden figure, a man, raises himself with hands and feet, stands a moment on the railing, leaps below to the stage, (a distance of perhaps fourteen or fifteen feet,) falls out of position, catching his boot-heel in the copious drapery, (the American flag,) falls on one knee, quickly recovers himself, rises as if nothing had happen’d, (he really sprains his ankle, but unfelt then)—and so the figure, Booth, the murderer, dress’d in plain black broadcloth, bare-headed, with full, glossy, raven hair, and his eyes like some mad animal’s flashing with light and resolution, yet with a certain strange calmness, holds aloft in one hand a large knife—walks along not much back from the footlights—turns fully toward the audience his face of statuesque beauty, lit by those basilisk eyes, flashing with desperation, perhaps insanity—launches out in a firm and steady voice the words Sic semper tyrannis—and then walks with neither slow nor very rapid pace diagonally across to the back of the stage, and disappears. (Had not all this terrible scene—making the mimic ones preposterous—had it not all been rehears’d, in blank, by Booth, beforehand?)

 

—Walt Whitman

You can read the complete essay by Whitman here.

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We at The Humble Essayist Press are proud to announce publication of Put Off My Sackcloth: Essays by Annie Dawid. Her book was runner up in the category of biography/ autobiography/ memoir at the Los Angeles Book Festival this year! You can learn more about her book and our fledgling press at our website here. You can read The Humble Essayist feature on the book in the Archives here.

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Folly Beach 

Folly Beach, my newest book, is a personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity, certainly a message for our frightening times. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word.  In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.

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We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques.  A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought.  But what is a paragraph?  And what, in particular, is a good one?  You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith.  So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary.   We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life.  Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work.  We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.

 

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