Sam Krieg for September 29

     So, earlier in the semester, I posted about how Whitman’s soldier descriptions in Song of Myself were generalized and idealized, with a promise to update on how his writing changed once he got up close and personal with war. It’s hard to think of a better time to do just that. I am going to track what I see as an important indicator of Whitman’s connection (or lack thereof) to the Civil War soldiers: his naming of them.

     As the war (and our reading in the LOA) began, Whitman’s view of the soldiers seems to have been similar to what it was in 1855, with his descriptions of the returning, defeated Union soldiers after the first Battle of Bull Run remaining pretty general. These men, lacking “the proud boasts with which you went forth,” do not have names (732). The act of naming someone, or something, signifies an affection that Whitman does not yet seem to feel for these men; instead, they are “queer looking objects” (733). Not surprisingly, this distance rapidly shrinks when Whitman begins to search for his brother in the hospitals.

     By December of 1862, Whitman had begun to see the faces of the soldiers he was writing and hearing about. Beginning with the “Back to Washington” note, Whitman begins to give names to the soldiers he had previously left untitled. “D.F. Russell” and “Charles Miller” are sitting there, with Whitman watching over them (738). That exact specificity does not last though; a mere six months later, Whitman reduces the soldier’s names to abbreviations.

     The abbreviations are not a sign of a returning disconnect between Whitman and the men: they convey the man’s initials, as we as his unit and where the unit was raised from (presumably around where the soldier was from). Instead, the reduction of names abbreviations reflects how there were simply too many men that Whitman was in contact with for him to convey how he truly felt for each individual. Despite the grand declarations he made about himself, our great poet of democracy had to deal with the limitations of being one man.

     Whitman deals with that forced namelessness in an interesting way though: instead of bemoaning his powerlessness, Whitman turns it into a glorification of the working-class foot soldier. However, while in “Unnamed Remains the Bravest Soldier” Whitman seems to solve his own problem and put a plug in for his favorite team, to do it requires him to put that old distance between himself and the men. Like Whitman’s captive hunters that are betrayed and slaughtered in Song of Myself, the bravest soldier here is also unfailingly young: “Our manliest—our boys—our hardy darlings; no picture gives them. Likely, the typic one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands)…” (748). That distance turns out to be more the rule than the exception with Whitman’s treatment of the Confederate soldiers.

     Although it is admirable that Whitman did not appear to show preference for northern soldiers when he was moving through the hospitals, he does in the written descriptions he gives of soldiers. With a couple of exceptions, the personal descriptions he gives of the soldiers he encounters are of Union men, with some men warranting entire notes for themselves. Not so for the Confederates: they remain almost entirely faceless. This should not be surprising, since Whitman was spending his time in Union army hospitals, that doubtlessly gave preference to Union wounded over Confederate wounded, but it shows another of Whitman’s limitations.  While he may have celebrated himself as containing galaxies, Whitman was very quickly shown by the war what size he was. It warrants mention though that, while these boundaries may have affected Whitman’s writings, they drove him to physically do work that belied those limits.

September 27 2009 10:25 pm | Uncategorized

9 Responses to “Sam Krieg for September 29”

  1. chelseanewnam Says:

    Sam, this is perhaps more to branch off of or provide another facet to your point, rather than to comment too much about it. I think it is interesting that you bring up Whitman’s choosing to name or not name soldiers as he feels a deeper (or less of a) connection with them. Though I am wondering if maybe his not placing names on these soldiers could also be a way of alluding to the idea that there is no name for this kind of tragedy and, despite the amount of names that Whitman could share of these soldiers, ultimately their deaths will be (as Meghan says in her post) just another number, another statistic.

    I am reminded a bit of section 13 of H.D.’s “Tribute to Angels” that reads, “for there is no name for it; / my patron said, ‘name it’; / I said, I can not name it, / there is no name; / he said, / ‘invent it.’” Though I could be reaching here, I feel like Whitman could be, as you say, distancing himself, but also suggesting that for some things, there are no names and that giving these soldiers names will do nothing to soften the hearts of those people who are so caught up in the idea of the war. This point, too, could go hand in hand with Whitman’s insistence that “the real war will never get in the books” (802).

  2. nataliesayth Says:

    Ooooooomg Chelsea I LOVE that you brought up that lyric of Tribute because I thought of those exact same lines when we were reading LoG, especially the fourth and second stanzas of what I copy here:

    “I ascend form the moon . . . . I ascend from the night,
    And perceive of the ghastly glitter the sunbeams reflected,
    And debouch to the steady and central from the offspring great or small.

    There is that in me . . . . I do not know what it is . . . but I know it is in me.

    Wrenched and sweaty . . . . calm and cool then my body becomes;
    I sleep . . . . I sleep long.

    I do not know it . . . . it is without name . . . . it is a word unsaid,
    It is not in any dictionary or utterance or symbol.” (86)

    I had thought I was just reverting to one H.D. passage I love and tend to relate to everything I see, which is why I’m SO glad someone else made that connection. I completely agree that Whitman, for the way he stretches and wears out language and takes advantage of it for all it may potentially be, finds that some things aren’t containable enough to be summed up in words; some things surpass that.

  3. nataliesayth Says:

    P. S. Sorry if I ruined anyone’s reading experience when I typoed the third word “from” into “form.”

  4. bcbottle Says:

    I’ve often felt that Whitman was trying a little to hard to be all encompassing. He claims to be the great observer, seeing everyone and everything for what it truly is. I think he knew this was impossible though, I can’t imagine he was actually so self-aggrandizing that he thought he could truly describe everyone.

    At the same time though I don’t think he could have made his point so well, or written such enticing poetry, if he hadn’t claimed such a lofty goal. He clearly is limited by his own worldview, but I think you make a good point when you say that whatever effect it had on his writing it allowed him to do the work that many of his time would not.

  5. Mara Scanlon Says:

    Well, I can die happy. Chelsea and Natalie have just beautifully, successfully linked HD and Whitman. Sigh. If I imagine those lines quoted by Nat in shorter triplets, I can almost believe some of them come right out of Trilogy. Thank you, sweets.

    The intro to the individually published Memoranda says that Whitman’s notebooks contained lists of names of the men he met and nursed, which is interesting in relation to Sam’s post– something about the way he encountered or memorialized them for himself vs. in this more public, rhetorical form? Sam, I really like the careful mapping you are doing here, and I hope you continue it in the weeks ahead. Re: the confederate soldiers, I had not noticed this, but maybe because I am (too much?) influenced by my frame that some nurses were not very responsive to the rebels vs. Whitman who brought all money, treats, kisses and that Whitman’s partner in DC was a former confederate, Peter Doyle.

  6. Erin Longbottom Says:

    I like what you said about Whitman being shown his size. I think that’s a good statement, and not necessarily in a mean way, just that Whitman gets to see what war is really like here. While doing the research for my oral report on civil war poetry, one of the things I’m picking up on is that Whitman, especially from the position of a writer, has a much better perspective on the war than most of his peers. Everyone else is kind of writing from a distance, saying how great the war is, where Whitman is viewing this destruction first hand.

  7. abcwhitman Says:

    The War was a “reality” check for Whitman, reminding him that he’s not, in fact, the omniscient, prophetic speaker featured in his poems. I like your words here: “our great poet of democracy had to deal with the limitations of being one man.”

    Whitman seems to lose a bit of his cocky persona post-war, after being faced with the sobering reality of mortality and his own limitations as a person and poet.

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