Chelsea for September 29

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Whitman’s “batch of convulsively written reminiscences” (799) about the Civil War in “Specimen Days,” particularly his record of encounters with soldiers he cared for as a nurse, really started me thinking about what the war represented to Whitman.  Obviously the day to day violence and massacre would take its toll on anyone, both physically and mentally.  But for Whitman, the war seemed to be a catalyst for the complete dissolution of the soul or spirit, and therefore came to tear the United States further away from the ideal democracy that Whitman stressed as necessity.

I say that the war may be viewed as a recipe for the breakdown of the soul by looking at the connections Whitman often made between the soul and body.  As frequently discussed in class, Whitman viewed the human body as ultimate perfection, writing often of its splendors and praising its uses and beauty.  He also declared that the soul and body are in a completely mutually beneficial relationship and that they rely on each other through this; this is shown when he writes, “The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body” (21) in the preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass.  As Whitman viewed, recorded, and even engaged in attempting to mend the devastation brought about by the war, he focused particularly on the hundreds of amputations various soldiers (from both the North and the South) were forced to endure.  He writes in “Specimen Days,” “I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart” (736) and mentions these severed and disposed appendages many times throughout the remainder of the text, as well as within several of his more graphic war poems.  The physical dismemberment of the limbs of soldiers, the removal of pieces of their bodies, can equally be said to allow for the chipping away of their spirits as well.  In losing one part of the aforementioned relationship, the whole deteriorates.

This is even more difficult for Whitman to grapple with as it is the result of America against America – a kind of national suicide.  The spiritual dismemberment that follows physical dismemberment hits him in a way that leaves him reaching for ways to bring the country back to some level of commonality.  He attempts to accomplish this by focusing on the natural world, the land that remains beautiful despite all of the violence and tragedy.  He writes:

The night was very pleasant, at times, the moon shining out full and clear, all Nature so calm in itself, the early summer grass so rich, and foliage of the trees—yet there the battle raging, and many good fellows lying helpless, with new accessions to them, and every minute amid the rattle of muskets and crash of cannon, (for there was an artillery contest too,) the red life-blood oozing out from heads or trunks or limbs upon that green and dew-cool grass (746).

In illuminating a battle scene by jumping back and forth between the harsh brutality of war and the peaceful serenity provided in and by nature, Whitman seems to hope to force his readers and the American people back into a place where their spirits and bodies may be uncompromised and where they may remain united.  In his writing, he seeks to piece together a people that continually divide themselves and hopes to stop them from doing so before there is nothing left to reunite.

3 Responses to “Chelsea for September 29”

  1. erinm Says:
    Avatar of erinm

    Really interesting post, Chelsea! Well-written, and I really agree with your inbterpretation, but hadn’t thought of it before! Thanks for sharing!

  2. bcbottle Says:
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    I think we seem to be saying similar things in our posts, although you’ve managed to say it much more articulately than I did.

    I think Whitman would not have been so devastated by the war if it had been America against another nation, but because it was an internal conflict in a country he thought so great it hurt him more.

    The comparison of the war to the dissolution of body and soul is a great way to talk about it, I think it really speaks to just how much Whitman felt a unified America meant. The break down of America was no less devastating than the break down of a person, body and soul.

  3. Mara Scanlon Says:
    Avatar of Mara Scanlon

    Reminding us about the essential body-soul connection is excellent, Chelsea. Don’t you feel that the soul, a star player in our earlier Whitman readings, is sort of MIA in this book? You’ve sought to talk about it through nature and the nation, which I think is right on. But when I think about the lists of body parts, the attention to bodies truncated and pierced and oozing, it does make me wonder: where is the soul now?

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