whitman and the medicine of daily affection -- 11/09/15

Today's selection -- from The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War by Roy Morris. Walt Whitman was one of America's greatest poets, and perhaps the first that wrote in a definitively American style, that is to say, straightforward and unadorned. Whitman's outlook on life and art was permanently changed during his years of tireless work in the hospitals of the Civil War, hospitals whose practices did not yet include anesthesia or antisepsis, and where 300,000 men died during that war:

"Of the comparative handful of American writers who personally witnessed the Civil War, Whitman was the unlikeliest candidate to become its recorder. Not only was he nearly forty-two years old when the war began, but he was also a poet, a philosopher, a freethinker, a bohemian, a mystic, a near Quaker, and a homosexual. Yet despite the fact that he never saw a battle and only briefly visited the front, his intimate involvement with the aftermath of battles -- the bruised and broken young men who filled the military hospitals, the convalescent camps, and the cemeteries -- ensured his importance as a wartime witness. Indeed, so closely did Whitman become associated with the war that his friend William D. O'Connor repeatedly urged him to write a book about his experiences, predicting accurately that 'no history of our times would ever be written without it .... [I]t would itself be history.'

"There were some, to be sure, who did not believe that Whitman had earned the right to chronicle the war. Union Army veteran Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for one, openly accused him of cowardice for not picking up a musket and joining the ranks. The charge was as specious as it was unfair. No one who knew the bluff, companionable Whitman could ever imagine him in the role of a soldier. He said so himself: 'I had my temptations, but they were not strong enough to tempt. I could never think of myself as firing a gun or drawing a sword on another man.' His young disciple John Burroughs was even more adamant. 'Think of belittling him because he did not enlist as a soldier,' Burroughs complained. 'Could there be anything more shocking and incongruous than Whitman killing people? One would as soon expect Jesus Christ to go to war.'

"His lack of military experience, however, did not prevent Whitman from serving the Union cause as wholeheartedly as Higginson or any other frontline soldier. From December 1862 until well after the war was over, he personally visited tens of thousands of hurt, lonely, and scared young men in the hospitals in and around Washington, bringing them the ineffable but not inconsiderable gift of his magnetic, consoling presence. In the process, he lost forever his own good health, beginning a long decline that would leave him increasingly enfeebled for the rest of his life. To his credit, he never regretted his wartime service, or what it had cost him personally. 'I only gave myself,' he told a friend. 'I got the boys.'

"And more to the point, they got him. Whitman entered the rank, fever-ridden hospitals in the nation's capital like a literal breath of fresh air, bringing with him a knapsack full of humble but much-appreciated gifts: fruit, candy, clothing, tobacco, books, magazines, pencils, and paper. His long white beard, wine-colored suit, and bulging bag of presents gave him a decided resemblance to Santa Claus, and the wounded soldiers, many of them still in their teens, called after him plaintively at the end of each visit: 'Walt, Walt, come again!' Except for a six-month period in late 1864 when he was forced to return home to Brooklyn to regain his health, he did come again, scarcely missing a day on his self-appointed rounds. 'Walt Whitman, Soldiers' Missionary,' he styled himself proudly on the front of his notebook.

Wounded soldiers in Armory Square Hospital Washington DC. Man with amputated arm at left

"A few of the more punctilious members of the United States Sanitary Commission complained openly about his informal status, his unconventional religious beliefs, and his unpredictable habit of coming and going as he saw fit. Whitman paid them little mind. 'As to the Sanitary commissions & the like,' he said, 'I am sick of them all ... you ought to see the way the men as they lie helpless in bed turn their faces from the sight of these Agents, Chaplains, &c ... they seem to me always a set of foxes & wolves.' Unlike them, he gave no lectures, handed out no tracts, and prayed no prayers for the immortal souls of white faced boys writhing on their beds. Instead, he simply sat and listened. That was what they needed most, more than any medicine, and Whitman sensed it instinctively. 'I supply often to some of these dear suffering boys in my presence & magnetism that which doctors nor medicines nor skills nor any routine assistance can give,' he wrote. 'I can testify that friendship has literally cured a fever, and the medicine of daily affection, a bad wound.'

"In return, the soldiers gave Whitman their love, friendship, and eternal gratitude. Through their humble, uncomplaining valor, they also gave him back his country -- which is to say, himself. He began the Civil War in a deep depression, a crumbling kosmos whose noble dreams of glory, for himself and his nation, were fast disappearing in an aimless round of bohemian posturing, late-night roistering, and homosexual cruising. He ended the war as 'the Good Gray Poet,' a beloved, almost mystical figure who personally embodied for millions of Americans a democratic ideal of sharing and brotherhood that remains undimmed nearly a century and a half later.

"Despite the myriad horrors of the hospitals -- the blood, the pus, the suffering, and the death -- Whitman looked back on the Civil War years as the most fulfilling period of his life. Those darkest of all American days were lit by the courage and sacrifice of thousands of young men, Union and Confederate, who proved on the temples of their own bodies that they cared about a cause more than they cared about themselves. Walt Whitman, in turn, cared about them. 'The dead, the dead, the dead, our dead,' he mourned."


author:

Roy Morris

title:

The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War

publisher:

Oxford University Press

date:

Copyright 2000 by Roy Morris, Jr.

pages:

4-7
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