Of the comparative handful of American writers who personally witnessed the Civil War, Walt Whitman was the unlikeliest candidate to become its recorder. Not only was he nearly 42 years old when the war began, but he was also a poet, a philosopher, a freethinker, a bohemian, a near-Quaker, a mystic and a homosexual. And despite his fervent adherence to the Union, he knew himself well enough to know that he was not proper soldier material. "I had my temptations," he told a friend, "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."
But Whitman found his own way to serve. For nearly three years, during the worst of the war, he set aside his literary career to become a hospital visitor in Washington, where he personally ministered to the needs of some 80,000 to 100,000 sick, wounded and lonely soldiers, making an estimated 600 visits to the various hospitals in the capital. Neither doctor nor nurse, the poet was his own one-man USO, bringing the soldiers small gifts of fruit, candy, tobacco, clothing, pens and paper–anything to make their confinement easier. Mostly, he sat and listened. Every hospital ward, he said, contained "a volume of meaning, a tragic poem." In the course of his visits, he found, "it was in the simple matter of personal presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism, that I succeeded and helped more than by medical nursing or delicacies, or gifts of money, or anything else….You can have no idea how these sick & dying youngsters cling to a fellow…it does so much good, they are so faint & lonesome."
In his new biography, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, $35), author Jerome Loving quite rightly begins with Whitman’s December 1862 visit to the battlefield at Fredericksburg, where his brother George had just been wounded. For the Civil War literally saved Walt Whitman–he said so himself. When the war began, he was in the midst of a spiraling depression, occasioned by the loss of his job as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times, the mixed reception of his latest book of poetry, the ongoing burdens of a troubled and troublesome family, the bankruptcy of his Boston-based publishers, and the end of an unhappy love affair with a young man several years his junior. He was spending most of his days riding alongside New York City’s hard-bitten stage drivers; most of his nights were spent in Pfaff’s beer cellar in Greenwich Village, drinking, talking and swapping barbs with the tavern’s self-styled bohemians. Increasingly Whitman felt caught in a vor-tex of "quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither."
His brother’s wounding changed all that. In the field hospitals around Fredericksburg, Whitman came face to face with the awful human cost of the war. One of the first sights to greet him on his arrival was a huge pile of amputated arms and legs. Thankfully, his brother was only slightly wounded, but other casualties of the bungled Union assault at Fredericksburg were not so fortunate. "The results of the late battle are exhibited everywhere about here in thousands of cases, (hundreds die every day) in the camp, brigade, and division hospitals," Whitman wrote. "These are merely tents, and sometimes very poor ones, the wounded lying on the ground, lucky if their blankets are spread on layers of pine or hemlock twigs….The ground is frozen hard, and there is occasional snow."
Almost by accident, Whitman found a new calling and a meaning to his life. Accompanying a hospital boat back to Washington, he settled in with friends and found a job as a government clerk in the paymaster’s office. He began to visit the hospitals every day–there were 35 or so, ranging in quality from converted private mansions to mud-encrusted tents in the contraband camps. Talking, listening, patting shoulders and smoothing brows, Whitman sought to comfort the soldiers, most of whom were still in their teens or early twenties. In their uncomplaining courage, he found the highest ideals of American democracy re-enacted, proof that his expansive vision of the nation as a melting pot of strong, decent individuals was correct. "These thousands, and tens and twenty of thousands of American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, &c. open a new world some how to me," he wrote, "giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity…tried by terrible, fearfulest, tests, probed deepest, the living soul’s, the body’s tragedies….Here I see…how certain man, our American man–how he holds himself cool and unquestioned master above all pains and bloody mutilations. It is immense, the best thing of all, nourishes me of all men."
As author Loving points out, "For the poet the Civil War became a marriage ceremony of sorts–between him and his country." By recommitting himself to the service of others, Whitman regained his own humanity, and through the example of simple soldiers enduring the harshest of trials he learned to write more simply and honestly. The poems he published about his wartime experiences, Drum-Taps, reflected a hard-won control of emotions that befitted his solemn subject matter. In such poems as "The Wound Dresser," "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim," "By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame" and "Come Up from the Fields Father," he wrote with quiet new authority about the war as it was suffered, endured and survived by the common men and women of the republic–not excluding himself. It was no casual boast for Whitman to say, after the war was over, "My book and the war are one."
Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself is the first full-length critical biography of Whitman in 40 years. Author Loving, a literary scholar, is more concerned with Whitman the poet than Whitman the Civil War chronicler. As such, there is something of a dearth of historical context about Whitman’s years and very little analysis of the war itself. Nor does Loving spend much time on the medical situation in the hospitals that so overwhelmed both patients and physicians–the rampant infections and epidemic diseases that caused two-thirds of all deaths suffered during the war. Nevertheless, for those readers who are able to supply their own historical perspective, Loving’s book is a good introduction to America’s first great–and in many ways still greatest–poet, the man who heard America singing and joyfully sang along.