Adam L for October 15

October 13th, 2009

            Whitman’s prose is very similar to his poetry, composed of long sentences and an unrestrained style. The style benefits the telling of Whitman’s fascinating personal history—the “convulsiveness” of the telling of his account of “the real war” reveals an impulse of rushing to record every detail. This style reaches its greatest effectiveness in the many scenes describing cases of wounded soldiers; its ability to condense a wide amount of sensory details makes the scenes incredibly vivid and compelling. An example of a single sentence, from page 749,

“In one of the hospitals I find Thomas Haley, company M, 4th New York cavalry—a regular Irish boy, a fine specimen of youthful physical manliness—shot through the lungs—inevitably dying…”

 exemplifies the text’s power in humanizing and inspiring empathy for each soldier despite the numerous amount of cases described (and that’s not even half the full sentence). This manner of writing could be called long-winded, certainly “convulsive” as Whitman describes it himself, but in dealing with the insanity of his surroundings while writing these “reminiscences,” it works perfectly. Without the style, unraveling detail all over each page, we may have missed Whitman playing 20-questions with wounded soldiers amidst the many piles of amputated limbs.

             The lack of action in these accounts of the war is revealing of Whitman’s understanding of what was “The Real War.” To him, it was clearly the behind-the-scenes agony, the unglamorous death and suffering that took place off the battlefield, mainly to the very young. His ability to render each of these young injured soldiers as disturbingly childlike, paired with exceptionally graphic accounts of violence, offers an extremely subversive picture of war.

             The concluding passages in this section are especially compelling. In The Real War Will Never Get In The Books, Whitman returns to the core ideas expressed in his poetry, proclaiming his valuing of people over politics, the soldiers of both sides over the interests of either the North or South. The passage concludes the section artfully, as the bulk of it is about exactly what he proclaims to find the most value in—people and his relationships with them. This, and his discussion of the importance of recording written history, clearly contributes to Whitman’s lasting democratic legacy      

One anomaly I find worth pointing out is The White House by Moonlight. Compared to the surrounding sections, this one is a calming, peaceful escape from the blood and gore of war. The hazy, moonlit setting is a moment of silence, that mitigates the tension of the narrative, until the last sentence about the sentries’ sharp eyes. It is positioned rather abruptly in the larger narrative, but the abruptness signifies how crucial this moment and this symbol is for Whitman. It is interesting to wonder how this experience must have changed him from that moment in which he dreamily described The White House, standing in awe at the majestic power it represented, and for which he would see hundreds of soldiers die.

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