Thursday, October 15th, 2009 | Author:

As a Civil War nerd, I found Whitman’s war memoranda very informative and enjoyable.  His account of soldiers returning after the Battle of Bull Run shows a side of the war I didn’t know–that there was widespread doubt among Union soldiers about their ability to win.

The contrast between Whitman’s poetry and prose is striking. Is seems Whitman was bipolar. Gone is the sensuous, grandiose poetic language; Whitman’s prose is straightforward and conventional. Reading Whitman stripped of his literary devices is like seeing an interview of an actor out of character.  In his prose, it’s about the story itself, not how it’s told. The purpose of “Specimen Days” is to relate history, not dazzle the readers.  In “Specimen Days” we have a primary source  from just behind the front lines of the Civil War, free of retrospect. What we have from Whitman the voice of a marginal character–not an officer, not a solider, not even a real nurse, but a lowly hospital assistant. Whitman’s sensitivity and humanity come through in interactions with sick and dying soldiers. Surprisingly, he deals with death and dying quite matter-of-factly, not something you’d expect from a romantic poet. In this excerpt from “Down at the Front” he sounds more like Hemingway than the man who wrote “Song of Myself.”

Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt. (Most of these bodies were subsequently taken up and transported north to their friends.) The large mansion is quite crowded upstairs and down, everything impromptu, no system, all bad enough, but I have no doubt the best that can be done; all the wounds pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and bloody. Some of the wounded are rebel soldiers and officers, prisoners. One, a Mississippian, a captain, hit badly in leg, I talk’d with some time; he ask’d me for papers, which I gave him. (I saw him three months afterward in Washington, with his leg amputated, doing well.) I went through the rooms, downstairs and up. Some of the men were dying. I had nothing to give at that visit, but wrote a few letters to folks home, mothers.

Another revealing passage is his account of Abraham Lincoln on p. 736. We have come to think of Lincoln, and the presidency in general, as something far removed from the daily life of citizens. Who would’ve guessed that an ordinary man like Whitman could follow the daily comings and goings of the president as if he were just a neighbor? Whitman could get close enough to the president to see the “deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows and very cordial ones.”  Imagine a regular citizen having such casual rapport with a president today. Today, the closest a ordinary person can get to the president is to peek through the gates on Pennsylvania avenue and watch the snipers on the roof of the White House. Or maybe the glimpse of Obama’s waving hand from his motorcade. Times have changed.

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  1. Avatar of jessicaa jessicaa says:

    I really liked how you said that reading Whitman’s prose was like seeing him in an interview. I too felt this way about Whitman’s prose. Through these passages the reader feels as though Whitman really is just pouring his heart out about his personal feeling about the war, and his work as a nurse, and his love for Lincoln and the country. I feel as though I really got to know Whitman through his prose. Great post!

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