American Soldiers, Civil War, Creative Crisis, Dead Poet's Society, fathers, Flawed hero, Goethe, Henry Miller, Leaves of Grass, military hospital, racism, Roy Morris Jr., soldiers, The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War, The Good Grey Poet, Tropic of Cancer, Walt Whitman, Writers
Within the last six months Walt Whitman has steadily become my father, which makes Dad’s birthday a little awkward. I mean I get the guy a present, but then he reads the card, grumbles, and opens the bag before letting me know he already owns a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls in hardback. This in turn makes me grumble and retreat to my copy of Leaves of Grass. This may at first seem awkward but later Dad and I talk about which James Bond was better and things get cool again. For the record Daniel Craig was the Bond for my favorite Bond film Skyfall, but even I recognize that Sean Connery remains the best bond even if Dr. No was boring as all hell.
Whitman has been a father to me though in the way that he allowed a model of masculinity to flourish that I aspire to, and for also exhibiting a figure of manhood that’s fed me through the last few years. It was because of him that I received the first confirmed publication of my writing career (and as soon as it’s published I promise to share it here), and so I’ve steadily begun to create a small Whitman library in shelves of books about or dedicated to the work of Walt Whitman.
On top of said pile is a slim tome entitled The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War that came into my life before Whitman assumed the significance that he does. I was working for the UT Tyler Writing Center and one of my co-workers mentioned something called “The Doctor’s Wives Book Fair.” Like so many things in life I had actually heard of this before, but this was the first time that I was either paying attention, or else really listened to a description out of selfish interest. My mom and little sister had actually regularly frequented this event multiple times and told me about it but I was usually too busy thinking about thinking about thinking or else hanging out with my then-girlfriend. When Tiffany told me about it, and asked if I’d like to go with her I said something along the lines of “Hell Fuckin yeah,” and so on a nasty rainy day in October the two of us partook of a sea of books marked 50 cents per paperback, $1.00 per hardback. I left with three boxes. Beneath the books about the assault on Stalingrad and hardback Gore Vidal’s sat The Better Angel, and when it returned home it sat on my shelf, yet another in an endless sea of books that shall be read at some point.
I’d learned about Whitman from Dead Poet’s Society when I was a sophomore in high school, and steadily over the years I grew a comfortable mound of knowledge about the man that developed into an intense curiosity. Part of the appeal was simple and regional: Whitman was a fag. That was what was whispered by a few of my compatriots, but once I grew out of high school and started reading his work from time to time, and hearing his name dropped in the small LGBT films I would watch on IGN, Whitman stopped being a fag and started being a homosexual man at a time when people weren’t supposed to be, more importantly he wrote about the body and love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name when that “just wasn’t done.” Simply put Whitman was the shit.
The Better Angel interested me, partly because it was published by Oxford University Press which is a gold standard of academic publishing, but also because I honestly didn’t know much about his life. The book is a biography of Whitman that focuses on the period of his life after the publication of Leaves of Grass(One of the early editions, the man went through at least three reprints of the book, supposedly re-writing and re-editing the book until his last breath), as he was searching for something in his life. You could call it a creative and personal crisis, for it certainly was that, but after reading the biography Roy Morris Jr., the writer of the book, seems to be trying to demonstrate Whitman’s time spent with Northern soldiers during the Civil War as a kind of phase of life transition.
Still Morris does understand and relate all of Whitman’s experience into how it shaped him as an artist. He writes in one passage after providing a selection from the poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,”:
One of the marks of any great writer is adaptability, and Whitman, after a few short days in camp among the young Northern soldiers, had already begun to grasp that his old enthusiastic style of writing was sadly unsuited for capturing the grim realities of their war. A New approach was needed, one that reflected more accurately the soldier’s homespun ways and quiet courage. With this great gift for mimicry, Whitman would begin to write poems that spoke in the drawling voices of the men themselves, in accents he first heard around the campfires at Fredericksburg. This was a new way of writing, not just for Whitman but for American literature in general, and its importance can scarcely be overstated. (61).
Looking over this passage I considered my impression of Whitman as “The American Poet.” It may simply have been watching Dead Poet’s Society on repeat through most of my teenage years (to be fair I was also watching Woody Allen Movies and Lord of the Rings), but Whitman always seemed to be a figure that had to be referenced when talking about the beauty of poetry, or else the importance of the American creative landscape. Whitman was the rock on the shore of some new land that writers and artists were always stepping on first as they entered that new territory, and anyone who bothers to read Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer is sure to stumble upon the following passage which mimics this sentiment, while also padding the man a little bit, more than a little bit…a lot:
And inevitably there always crept into our discussions the figure of Whitman, that one lone figure which America has produced in the course of her brief life. In Whitman the whole American scene comes to life, her past and her future, her birth and her death. Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machine, to the robots. He was the Poet of the Body and the Soul, Whitman. The first and last poet. He is almost undecipherable today, a monument covered with rude hieroglyphs for which there is no key. It seems strange almost to mention his name over here. There is no equivalent in the languages of Europe for the spirit which he immortalized. Europe is saturated with art and her soil is full of dead bones and her museums are bursting with plundered treasures, but what Europe has never had is a free, healthy spirit, what you might call a MAN. Goethe was a stuffed shirt, by comparison. Goethe was a respectable citizen, a pedant, a bore, a universal spirit, but stamped with the German trade-mark, with the double eagle. The serenity, the calm, Olympian attitude, is nothing more than the drowsy stupor of a German burgeois deity. Goethe is an end of something, Whitman is a beginning. (239-40).
I believe after that lengthy passage it’s fair to suggest that Henry Miller was, I think the expression goes, “Gay for Whitman.” Phrasing. Wait does that work there? Immaterial, moving on.
Despite the romanticism of Miller’s declaration for Whitman as the national poet there is some relevance to this statement. Writers like Ezra Pound, Miller himself, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg are just a few examples of writers in the 20th century who derived a sense of creative identity around Whitman because he, alongside Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and Henry David Thoreau helped create a definitively American landscape and culture. By treating the American territory and its people as subject worthy of writing about he effectively established a ground from which future writers, poets, and orators could start their creative identity from.
Morris’s book does an excellent job of placing Whitman as this vital figure in the American Literary Canon, but his effort is first to find Whitman the man. Whitman became involved in the war effort after his brother George Whitman was listed in a local newspaper as wounded. At the time Whitman had been bumming through the slums of New York desperate to find a new drive and a new energy and he found it in the soldiers of the Northern army.
At first Whitman merely entertained the troops, sitting by their bedside and listening to them, but over time his role in their life changed:
In hot weather he sometimes brought ice cream for the men as a special treat. All these gifts he distributed informally and unostentatiously, knowing full well that the proud young soldiers would resist instinctively any suggestion of charity. He kept track of his dispersals in small pocket notebooks ne made by stitching together sheets of folded paper with bits of string. Everyday he jotted down whatever he could learn from the patients he visited—name, rank, company, regiment, bed number, ward, hospital, nature of wound or illness, and the names and addresses of parents and wives. He soon saw that the best thing he could give the men was writing supplies; those who were unable to write for themselves he cheerfully assisted at dictation. An inveterate letter writer himself, he knew how important it was to keep in touch with the folks back home. (105).
The image of Whitman among the soldiers is a romantic one, but it can’t be understated how important this time and experience was for Whitman as a man and as a writer. The Civil War removed Whitman from an emotional slump and effectively remade him and this transition was in large part due to his service to the soldiers who often languished in these medical camps.
Morris doesn’t the spare the reader any of the grisly realities of these camps, going to even demonstrate that Whitman himself was not immune from them:
Contributing to Whitman’s low mood was the deteriorating state of his own health. After five months of going to the hospital on a daily basis, he was not complaining of “quite an attack of sore throat & distress in my head […].” In retrospect his scarlet face, coupled with a persistent humming and deafness in his ears, seems to have been a harbinger of an even more serious breakdown still to come. Nor was his situation helped when he suffered a bad cut to his hands while assisting at an operation. The hand became infected and he had to keep it carefully wrapped to avoid the ever present threat of gangrene. (119-120).
This dedication Whitman had for the soldiers surpasses the traditional image of celebrities aiding the troops by entertainment or public speaking. This isn’t to dump on the reputation of men like Bob Hope and the band Disturbed who in their times have come to mean so much to members of the United States military, but Morris’s book demonstrates that Whitman’s visit and regular haunt of the military hospital was more than simple celebrity presence. Whitman came to the hospital originally looking for his brother George whom he had read had been injured in battle. While at first he appeared for personal reasons, he began to look upon the soldiers, the young men around him, as real embodiments of the American spirit. Whitman surpassed that kind of dedication by offering up his time, his pen, and as the previous passage shows, even his body.
At this point the reader may wonder though what relevance this book might have to those living today who know little or care to know little about the American Civil War? Likewise what relevance does Whitman have to people outside of literary studies? And finally why should I bother with Walt Whitman, wasn’t he a racist?
These are all fair points to bring up because they’re all strong arguments, the last point being particularly relevant. In one passage Morris discusses Whitman’s relationship to a friend who was an ardent abolitionist and near the end of the paragraph he offers an important insight to Whitman’s personal views concerning the political movement:
Given such views it is not surprising that Whitman’s erstwhile publisher, Charles Eldridge, would later observe: “I’ve never knew him to have a friend among the negroes while he was in Washington. Of the negro race he had a poor opinion. He said that there was in the constitution of the negro’s mind an irredeemable trifling or volatile element, and he would never amount to much in the scale of civilization. (80-1).
It’s at this point the writer winces painfully while saying the word “Ouch” in a low groan. At this point I could attempt to explain out this racism as simply part of the time period, but I’m not going to.
Rather than try to soften this passage and outlook, I chose rather to acknowledge this as simply part of Walt Whitman. I’ve written before about the danger of making heroes. John Wayne, one of my favorite film stars, once said in the Playboy interview that, “I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” Christopher Hitchens, my largest influence as a writer, argued in his essay Women Aren’t Funny, that women aren’t funny because they don’t need humor to attract a mate. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, two of the most important poets in American history, were both notorious anti-Semites. All of these examples are provided here not as an apology but rather as cold reality. Walt Whitman was a racist, and exhibited a poor opinion of black people, and rather than trying to deny it I can only remind the reader to try and separate the man from his work.
This passage is sure to hurt the image of Whitman, especially if I’m going to continue to argue that the man exemplified greatness. I don’t make apologies for racists because they don’t deserve them. To suggest that Whitman has no relevance as an artist however is a dangerous disservice to culture.
Morris’s book is worth it despite this passage, yet some critics have used Whitman’s racist tendencies as an excuse not to read this book or else to give it shit reviews. This is irresponsibility on their part, for even if the material reveals faults in Whitman it is a brilliant book that is both well written and truly enjoyable to read. Morris writes in a way that his subject becomes a real human being taken by his passions, and his prose is clear without pretension. Any reader can approach The Better Angel and see Whitman the man and poet by the end of the text satisfied and actually happy that they now have met this man and come to know his heart.
Morris’s book is worth the reader’s time, for even if they have no interest in the American Civil War they surely can appreciate the story of a man who became inspired to help soldiers who, over time, became more than just young men he cared for, they became brothers-in-arms, and even sons.
Morris offers one last look at the impression Whitman had on these young men:
The Good Grey Poet—particularly its title—defined Whitman for entire generation of American readers. In a larger sense, however, Whitman did not need O’Conner’s special pleading to cement his place in the history of the war or the affections of the soldiers he encountered during its course. The soldiers themselves, those who survived, kept his memory evergreen within them. They were his truest legacy. In letter after letter they addressed him variously as “dear friend,” “dear comrade,” “kind uncle,” “dear brother,” “dear father,” “esteemed friend,” or simply “dear Walt.” They wrote to tell him the progress of their lives—their wives and children, their success and failures, their travels and travails, their health, their politics, their dreams. But mostly they wrote to tell him their love. (235).
There are many, many stories from the American Civil War, and while some are drenched in pathos or bloodshed, there is something to reading about an individual’s man sacrifice as he became someone new, not just for himself, but young men who had seen the horrors of war and needed only someone to listen to them. A Better Angel reveals Walt Whitman not just as “The American Poet,” rather it shows him as a man who felt a tremendous sympathy and who wished to help others. A father gives his sons his time, his energy, his stories, and his gifts, and Walt Whitman gave all of these to the young men of the Northern Army.
Walt Whitman, with his unkempt beard and gait of the constant troublemaker, will always be a father to me because he lived and followed his passions, and in his time became more to the men of his country than simply their writer.
Here’s a link to Roy Morris’s faculty page at Purdue if the reader is interested in learning more about the man:
His Amazon page with several of his other books:
And here is a link the man’s website:
The passages from The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War came from the Oxford paperback edition. The passages from Tropic of Cancer came from the Grove Press paperback edition.