Courtney for 9/28

September 27th, 2009

I spent most of this weekend doing research for my oral report, which is on Civil War medicine and hospitals.  I browsed through hundreds of images:  Creepy ten-types of soldiers with vague expressions and stumps for legs.  Dozens of wounded soldiers lying under trees waiting for medical attention, their arms and legs contorted like broken twigs.  Saws and scalpels that looked more like something from a horror movie than something that should be in a hospital.  Throughout all of this I felt that I got a sense of the “real war” that Whitman spoke of.

Today, the exposure that civilians get of war is so diluted and contrived.  The bloody sheets and dead bodies are kept far from view of the public; out of sight and out of mind.  Even coffins respectfully draped with an American flag are considered too controversial for public consumption.

It is especially interesting to me that Whitman saw the importance of an honest portrayal of the war, even in a time when most people were exposed to it in a much more realistic way.  I’ve been thinking about the psychological effects of a war that takes place, not on the other side of the world, but in your back yard.  And of an enemy that is not foreign and unfamiliar but your brother or neighbor.  It’s easy to throw a blanket over thousands of fallen patriots, either “North” or “South,” “Confederate” or “Yankee.”  However, Whitman seems to see the importance in looking closely at the faces of these soldiers and contemplating their experiences and motivations.

In Memoranda During the War, when he says, “The actual Soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp — I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be,” perhaps he’s talking about the other side of the coin.  As tragic as it may be, there is a certain amount of heroism and glory in dying on the battlefield.  I think there is validity in trying to preserve this image.

To switch gears a little, I also found out this weekend that no account of Civil War Medicine is without mention of Clara Barton.  She seems a bit like a female version of Whitman himself.  She joined the throws of women, with little to no medical training, to help assist their country in the bloodiest of ways: as nurses.  These women dropped everything to support a nation that had not even granted them the right to vote.  In Barton’s poem she says calls these women, “nurses, consolers, and saviors of men.  These women truly were angels, and our history as a nation is much more complete with their stories told honestly.

4 Responses to “Courtney for 9/28”

  1. Avatar of jpike1 jpike1 on September 28, 2009 1:50 pm

    Although I did not write about it in my post, I too was comparing today’s war images, or lack thereof to what Whitman describes in his journals. It is almost as if we want to keep the gruesome facts of war and death hidden and only think of war as positive and heroic. Although, Whitman definitely describes the soldiers as heroic, he also humanizes them. The mere fact that he writes down the individuals’ names that he interacts with in the hospital, demonstrates how Whitman took a personal interest in each and every soldier and wanted his readers to take a personal interest in them as well. This is very different than what we see today in the media, where the images and descriptions of the wounded and dead are concealed from the public’s eye.

  2. Avatar of meghanedwards meghanedwards on September 28, 2009 7:23 pm

    I agree with you and Jessica here; Whitman’s concern over the soldiers takes a role in personifying them that few media segments try to do today. It’s kind of a throwback to the themes he expresses in “Song of Myself.” Whitman does not care if the man is Northern or Southern, Irish, Jewish, or English. To him, they are all soldiers, each a body and a soul. I wonder then, if this extra-personal relationship is the extra push that changed his attitude with death, and matured him to that persona that we saw in “This Compost.” His ts personification of the low was on such a close level; he was no longer removed the way he was before the Civil War.

  3. Avatar of chelseanewnam chelseanewnam on September 28, 2009 9:53 pm

    Courtney, after reading your last point as well as the poem by Clara Barton, and thinking about the war, I started considering how Whitman portrays women throughout “Specimen Days.” This again gives me over to the hands of my indecision about where he sees women in society. As a nurse, Whitman places himself in a traditionally female position and encourages and endorses the work they do by doing it himself. Throughout “Specimen Days,” he makes it a point to show how important women were in the hospitals during the war, writing of one, “I liked the woman nurse in ward E – I noticed how she sat a long time by a poor fellow who just had, that morning, in addition to his other sickness, bad hemorrhage – she gently assisted him, reliev’d him of the blood, holding a cloth to his mouth, as he coughed it up – he was so weak he could only just turn his head over on the pillow” (740-741). He also mentions them throughout many of the places where he discusses hospital scenes, and he seems to consider them an invaluable part of the healing process. Though I am still unconvinced of Whitman’s view that women are deserving of complete equality, these scenes helped me to see where and how he is at least attempting to appreciate them.

  4. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon on September 29, 2009 10:53 am

    I commented on Virginia’s post about just this issue of our current war, and what we do and do not see. One striking thing is that fact that more men in the Civil war died of dysentery than battle wounds. But we don’t want to see diarrhea (okay, not literally, at least). Now when I look the Post’s occasional Faces of the Fallen sections (so awful, but I feel I can at least register those faces and names from my position of safety), I am struck by all those who die from non-combat injuries or incidents, and I wonder if their families feel less proud or something. But Whitman reminds us that suffering and death from war takes many forms, all legitimate.

    Great thinking about women in these exchanges, friends.

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