The speaker of “O Captain! My Captain” is super-fanboy #1. He’s got all the trading cards, is president of the fan club, and even has an old piece of gum that the captain once chewed. Of course, we’re kidding here, but the point is that this speaker has a very strong connection to the captain, just as Walt Whitman felt strongly about Abraham Lincoln.
By today’s standards, such unbridled attraction to a public figure is (a) kind of common (for example) and (b) kind of creepy. We know there are people out there who get way too wrapped up in celebrities, and frankly we would cross the street if we saw these folks coming our way. (We’re looking at you, TMZ.)
Still, this speaker does not come across as the type to rifle through the captain’s garbage or try to chase him through the streets for a cheap photo. His love for the captain strikes us as genuine. More importantly, his love makes this captain seem more human. He’s not just some talking head, a leader with whom we can’t connect. He’s a person who is loved and mourned by the speaker.
In that way, the speaker’s affection is a model for us, the audience. The captain’s death is not just some abstract political event. It is a real, human tragedy that we should all be deeply affected by. The speaker’s emotional mourning is proof of that.