THE BETTER ANGEL: WALT WHITMAN IN THE CIVIL WAR, by Roy Morris, Jr., Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $25.00.
Walt Whitman served in the Civil War not as a soldier but as an angel, according to a new biography of America’s Good Gray Poet. Morris observes that Whitman, who spent the latter half of the war as an unpaid nurse dispensing good cheer and timely gifts to wounded soldiers in Washington military hospitals, was as close to angelic as mortals ever get.
Whitman was drawn to hospitals after his brother was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In time, he became a hospital regular and, at age 43, he was more middle-aged candy striper than medical nurse. From his own meager income, Whitman purchased candy, tobacco, fruit, magazines, and pencils and paper to give away.
Whitman might have been an angel, but he was no saint. He openly criticized visiting ministers who were long on prayer but short on kind words, while his independence and flamboyant nature kept him at odds with hospital organizations such as the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission.
Whitman believed that “the simple matter of Personal Presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism” were his strengths. To foster a positive outlook, he always bathed, put on clean clothes, and ate a good meal before a visit to the wards. If some patients found him intrusive, his colorful demeanor and satchel of treats made him popular with dozens of others.
Morris, editor of America’s Civil War magazine, offers a balanced, insightful portrait. By contrasting Whitman’s good deeds with his vanity, depressions, and sexual confusion, Morris shows us a complex man discovering himself and his poetry through the injured sons of the nation he loved.
MILTON BAGBY is an author and filmmaker, whose fictional Civil War documentary video Adam Killogg’s Diary made its debut in December.