1/21/09 - whitman and war

In today's excerpt - Walt Whitman in the American Civil War. Because his adored brother George was an officer in the Union army, Walt—who many consider to be America's most original poet—was drawn to the war as a hospital volunteer:

"Working as a government copyist to pay the rent, and 'hacking on the press' [for extra funds] whenever he could, [Walt Whitman] nursed and gave other assistance for four or five hours per day, five or six days a week [in makeshift Union hospitals]. By his own reckoning he cared for more than 80,000 soldiers in the course of the war. He assisted at amputations, carried bedpans, fed those too weak to feed themselves, held the hands or mopped the brows of men dying of typhoid, dysentery, pyemia (an epidemic blood infection) and systemic gangrene. He wrote hundreds of letters of condolence, and those few letters not lost to history exhibit an affecting restraint. Walt's instinctive sympathy for the parents and other relatives of the young men sacrificed in the war led him neither to patriotic effusions ('Rest assured that your son died in a noble cause, there being no greater honor than to shed one's blood for one's country,' etc.) nor to religious or religio-mystical hyperventilations. He was not of the school that asserts that the dead are better off, that they have gone to a better place. Rather, his letters of condolence tended to describe the young man so painfully lost in terms that a father or mother or brother or sister could readily understand and would long remember: how the boy behaved at the end; what he said, if anything; whether he had lost weight, had a haircut, or suffered some other notable alteration in appearance. 'Though I knew him but briefly,' a number of the letters say, in essence, 'I came to love him, beautiful and appealing young man that he was.'

"Walt came to believe that the details of the battles—the 'mere military minutiae,' as he called the information about tactics, victories, and acts of combat heroism—would soon be lost to history, and deservedly so. What would be remembered, instead, would be the acts of compassionate intercession: the nursing comforting, and condoling to which he and other volunteers and medical personnel had dedicated themselves. A poet's narcissism may explain his praise for what he himself was undertaking to do—Whitman is, after all, the Poet of Himself, ever given to idealizing and mythologizing his own character and life. But other concerns were also at play. Though loyal to Lincoln and to the Union cause, Walt was disgusted by the war—his letters to his mother recount again and again the horrors he was seeing, the gross waste of young life, the hideous, pointless agonies. He was finally overcome by what he saw. In the spring of 1864, just as George was embarking on the final campaign of the war, Walt began to fail emotionally. He exhibited an assortment of odd symptoms and had to take temporary leave from the hospitals and go home to Brooklyn to be nursed by his mother. It is a testament to his devotion that, six months later, he returned to Washington and to the same grim, saddening work in the hospitals. His love for the young men and his pity for their suffering made his return unavoidable.

"Considering his uncanny insight into the hearts of men, the way Walt got things exactly wrong about the Civil War is notable. He abhorred violence and thought that the 620,000 dead of the war—a figure equivalent to six million Americans today percentagewise—would consign war to the ashbin of history. But the world was actually on the threshold of an enduring boom in war, with the Civil War marking but its initial stage."


Robert Roper


"Collateral Damage"


The American Scholar


Winter 2009


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