Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Jessica Pike for September 29

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 27, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

In the introduction to Memoranda, Whitman expresses his fears of the Civil War being forgotten and writes, “In the mushy influence of current times, the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten” (5). However, in the lament Whitman gives, Whitman himself acknowledges that the “real war” can never be captured. Yet, the fact that Whitman put forth his diary entries to the public was his attempt to capture history. As a “Yankee”, (I’m from Massachusetts), I did not have the home of the Civil war at my doorstep like I do now. So, my sense of the Civil War came solely from textbooks. So it was more of a “factual” knowledge of dates, locations, and generals, never the nitty gritty details that Whitman provides in Speciman Days.

Working in the makeshift hospitals, Whitman witnessed death everyday. But, was Whitman, truly capturing all of the horrors of death and war in his prose? Or was Whitman like the textbook’s filtering what the public can see? I would like to think that Whitman included to his best ability everything that he witnessed. However, even Whitman acknowledges that readers can not truly understand the atrocities of war without being in the battlefield. In “Death of A Hero”, Whitman writes, “ I wonder if I could ever convey to another, to you, for instance, reader dear- the tender and terrible realities of such cases” (768). However, Whitman highlights the moments in Fredericksburg and in the war in which he found important and touching. Whether it is describing Abraham Lincoln on a horse or the “Ambulance Processions”, Whitman conveys through the written word what was occurring in the south during the Civil War.

What struck me was how Whitman even throughout his entries in Specimen Days finds his writing talent as important not only to “record history” but as a means of comfort to soldiers. In many of the entries Whitman describes how he would write letters for the wounded soldiers and send them to their family, friends, and loved ones at home. Whitman used writing to unite the nation, both in letters, his prose, and poetry. Whitman did not have much to offer these soldiers, yet he mentions “letters” as one of the gifts and services that he provided. From the way Whitman writes in the entries, it seems as though Whitman became known for his letter writing service. In the introduction to Memoranda Whitman alludes that he wants his written word to withstand time in order to commemorate those that died in the Civil War. Yet, it can be argued that these written letters he wrote for the wounded and dying soldiers are physical evidence, a primary source, which truly captures the feelings and atrocities of the Civil War.

Whitman day in and day out was right beside the soldiers as they died. However, although he could have left and gone back to New York, he remained in the mist of the battles. Whitman reflects on his personal commitment to stay and writes, “I do not see that I do much good to the wounded and dying; but I can not leave them.” (Erkkila 198). Nonetheless, witnessing these deaths obviously had a great affect on him, as it would anyone. Therefore, Whitman used both his observations and feelings that these observations sparked as his muse. While taking care of the soldiers in the hospitals, Whitman assisted both men and young boys from the North and South. Thus, as we discussed in class last week, in his poetry after the war there are more nationalistic words and phrases. Whitman, witnessing as many deaths as he did, saw how precious and fragile life was. Therefore, Whitman wanted his readers to not only to remember the war and many soldiers that died, but to also learn from the war and unite as a nation.


  1. missvirginia:

    Ay ay ay! So, sometimes I read whatever we’re supposed to for class, then I sit down to do the blog and some of the most important points I wanted to make fly out of my head. Well, that can be remedied, but the point I’m trying to make is when you said:
    “In the introduction to Memoranda, Whitman expresses his fears of the Civil War being forgotten and writes, “In the mushy influence of current times, the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten” (5). However, in the lament Whitman gives, Whitman himself acknowledges that the “real war” can never be captured. ”
    I TOTALLY had that thought too. I kept thinking, how contradictory! On another note, I think that Whitman was trying to give the public a more real vision of the war. Or at least, I hope–from his poems and letters I don’t think he was sugar-coating anything, but I agree that trying to convey everything he saw and witnessed is near impossible.
    Great post overall–and I have family in Mass, so thumbs up! :)

  2. Mara Scanlon:

    Jess, I am also a Yankee immersing in the Civil War, a war I have not thought enough about even though I literally live on ground that Whitman reminds me is saturated with blood and foul fluids and rotted bodies.

    Erkkila makes the interesting pt that Whitman published Memoranda 10 years after the war, as the nation was moving into the greed, corruption, and consumerism of the late 19th century and Reconstruction. So it really is a mediated and carefully framed text, even as it purports to be a raw chronicle. The rhetorical work of it as such is fascinating.

  3. Mara Scanlon:

    Forgot to say, Jessica, that I really love your attention here to writing in its less public form: the letters for and about soldiers, some of which Whitman sends to families even after their men are dead, just to give a personal comment on the death.

  4. s-words:

    Yeah, I’m fascinated with that consideration of “Whitman’s writing talent” as “a means of comfort to soldiers.” Anyone filling the role of a nurse in a hospital for Civil War wounded might have been expected to write home to the men’s families, especially on the occasion of their deaths. But the thought of Whitman harnessing his particular abilities in these letters (as a distinct genre, even!) really exceeds that nursing role. What’s even more interesting in this context, then, is the fact that Whitman deliberately submerges his “writerly” exceptionality in those letters, assumedly out of deference to the “less public” nature of the genre (Scanlon’s words in quotes). For example, in a May 1865 letter to a Mrs. Irwin, Whitman notes that “I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be worth while–for I loved the man, though I but saw him immediately to lose him. I am merely a friend visiting the hospitals occasionally to cheer the wounded and sick.” In these lines we have simultaneously a measured withdrawal from presuming to know too much about Irwin, and a defiant declaration of his right to have “loved the man” after such a brief time, all in a writing meant to serve a relatively routine function. True to the ethos of his poetry, no task was “unequal” to his abilities as a writer.

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