Tag-Archive for » Civil War «

Thursday, December 10th, 2009 | Author:

The brown-sugar shortbread I’m baking for my Whitmaniacs is in the oven, the freshman final exams I should be grading are stacked beside me, my children are sleeping all snug in their beds, and I am melancholy that tomorrow effectively disbands the Digital Whitman Fellowship.  There is much work undone.  By Friday morning the heaviest of those burdens will be grading final projects, but tonight it’s the realization that I’ve never really blogged about the Womanly Whitman.  Since naming him in response to Dr. Earnhart’s famous James Bond Speech on our first night of class in August, God knows I’ve talked about him, I’ve watched students and two other professors at UMW pick up the term, I’ve mentioned him to Barbara Bair, the Library of Congress archivist who changed our semester.  But he deserves one final huzzah here on I Give You My Hand.

Before this project, I taught Whitman a lot, in three or four different courses, but had come to focus almost solely on “Song of Myself”– sometimes 1855, sometimes Deathbed, sometimes with humor, sometimes with aggravation, always with an appreciation for poetic genius, and always with a pretty clear picture in my head of the kind of guy I was dealing with: macho, swaggering, egotistical.  You know, this guy:

The Enhanced Manly Whitman

The Enhanced Manly Whitman

Even his radical inclusion had begun to feel at best appropriative, at worst cannibalistic, consuming the American people to feed his vast, virile self.  “Song of Myself” was like a poetic codpiece.  I couldn’t see the forest for the fibres of manly wheat.  You understand me.

I exaggerate, of course, but don’t entirely lie.  During the re-immersion in Whitman that I undertook about a year ago, something happened.  In between blaming Whitman for Charles Olson and rolling my eyes at his father-stuff, I began to see someone unexpected emerging–someone with soft hips and warm eyes, someone surprisingly quiet, a good listener, a bringer of lemons and ice cream, a moon-watcher.  This person:

The Marriage Photo

The Marriage Photo, with pleased smiles and fleshy hips

And this one:

Whitman, 1868, sad

Whitman, about 1869, sad

This Whitman appeared in the memoirs of his friends, in letters to his mother, and, powerfully, in the Civil War writings to which I was turning fresh and focused attention.   (To my surprise, when I went back to “Song of Myself,” of course this Whitman was all over it.)  Right now my favorite work of this Whitman may be “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” which is here.

“Vigil Strange” imagines a private wake for a young dead soldier, kept through the night by an older, grieving comrade.  It is not a perfect poem, being marred by weird syntactic inversions and being, arguably, maudlin.  But it is intensely moving in the quietness of its grief:

Till late in the night reliev’d to the place at last again I made my way,

Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)

and its acceptance of the unacceptable:

Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear, not a word,

Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,

As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole . . .

and in its exquisite, unbearable gentleness:

My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop’d well his form,

Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,

And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited. . .

“Vigil Strange” has a rhythm that approaches incantation or lullaby–long, frequently repetitive lines that are calming (cut short abrasively by the reality of war in the aborted rhythm of the final line/action: “And buried him where he fell”).  The swaddling of the “son,” “my soldier,” in his blanket is, I’m going to suggest, not masculine, not even paternal.  It is maternal, tender, womanly.

What problems arise from my assertion?  A lot, and two of them have to be addressed.  First, unquestionably my desire to call this voice the Womanly Whitman is rooted heavily in a construction of the womanly and the maternal that is traditional, nurturing, compassionate, the angel in the hospital ward.  It is the construction I invoked in the domestic scene that began this post.  It is a construction with which I am utterly at odds ideologically and which I have doggedly and sometimes fiercely interrogated in my teaching, my politics, and many of my life choices.  Second, there is a complication in casting the speaker of “Vigil Strange” as maternal, a Freudian complication best indicated by the title from Lawrence (curse, growl): “Sons and Lovers.”  My casting of this soldier as maternal effectively recontains the homoeroticism of the poem:

One look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget,

One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the ground,

Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,

Till late in the night reliev’d to the place at last again I made my way,

Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)

The language of “my son,” “dear eyes,” and “boy” can mask the power of that body, those kisses, the assertion of love that will transcend death (less so, perhaps, if you’ve read the repeated use of the word “son” in Whitman’s letters to his partner Peter Doyle).  OR, and this is equally problematic, I am mapping “gay” over “tender, feminine, womanly” as though they are fundamentally interchangeable.

Oy vey.  Now I’m really in the total animal soup of essentialism.

But I want that term.  Maybe because in some ways it is MY “womanly”– that is to say, “womanly” is a tag not unlike the “myWW” tag I append to certain posts to indicate a connection to Whitman that goes beyond admiration of the poetic line, the image, the nest of guarded duplicate eggs you have to have to throw over the literary establishment.  It is, I will say on safer ground, a non-patriarchal Whitman: tender, generous, nurturing, doubting, equalizing.  It’s the Whitman this semester has given me, and I’m grateful.

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Sunday, November 01st, 2009 | Author:

Here is a more focused set of my photos from Digital Whitman’s DC visit, which we made two days before discussing Whitman’s Lincoln writings/lecture in class.

Ford's Theater (in rare non-rainy moment)

Ford's Theater where Lincoln was shot (in rare non-rainy moment)

When we went into the actual theater (or, in some of my students’ cases, the napping room–shame on you!), I was disappointed at first that the guard ushered me upstairs since the downstairs was full.  But in the balcony I realized I was actually at eye level with Lincoln’s box, shown below.  Both Lincoln and Booth made their way through the crowded balcony that night; the door Booth entered and jammed shut is just to the right of what I captured on this photo.  The theater is very intimate, and the box is really hanging over stage left.  I had real chills when the ranger was narrating the events of April 1865.


Presidental box, Ford's Theater (image of Washington in center frame)

Afterward we toured the Peterson House where Lincoln actually died– such a small, nondescript room with a sloped ceiling and bed so short (the real one is in Chicago, but the replica) that Lincoln had to lie diagonally while they waited for his heart to stop; he was brain dead pretty much instantly after being shot.

At the Library of Congress, Barbara Bair had set out three different tickets to Whitman’s Lincoln lecture, an advertising poster for it, and the text Whitman used for the lecture, which was a novel into which he had glued written bits, parts of his published works, annotations, etc.

Tickets to W's Lincoln lectures

Tickets to W's Lincoln lectures

Advertisement with our heroes side by side

Advertisement with our heroes side by side

The pasted-up text of W's Lincoln lecture (wish that was my hand!)

The pasted-up text of W's Lincoln lecture (wish that was my hand!)

Digital Whitman can attest that I am probably a little–well, over-invested in Lincoln.  But these artifacts, though not as personal as some others we saw, were indeed very moving to me.

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009 | Author:

I am indebted to Other Sam for drawing my attention to this very moving detail.  One of the best things I saw at the Library of Congress was Whitman’s letter of December 29, 1862 (that is, exactly 106 years before the day I was born), to his mother about finding George in Fredericksburg.  We were able to read aloud his words about the suffering of the soldiers putting other suffering into perspective.  We have read this letter in a collected of selected letters: “Dear, dear Mother, . . . I succeeded in reaching the 51st New York, and found George alive and well–in order to make sure that you would get the good news, I sent back by messenger to Washington (I dare say you did not get it for some time), a telegraphic dispatch . . .”  What is not visible in that version of the letter is the revision Whitman made, no doubt anticipating the anxiety with which his mother would scan the letter if she had not received the “telegraphic dispatch” or was desperate for information about her wounded son.  Lovely:

revision ("alive and well"), photo by MNS 10/24/09, LOC

revision ("alive and well"), photo by MNS 10/24/09, LOC

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 | Author:

I’ve mentioned this podcast from Nate DiMeo at the memory palace before.  I find it pretty poignant.  It’s about the Booth brothers, especially John Wilkes’ older brother Edwin.  Listen for a shout-out to Our Man Whitman [OMW]:

Edwin Booth BOOST

Here Edwin is looking pensive (or moping about his footwear):

Edwin Booth, thespian

Edwin Booth, thespian

And here is a famous photo we saw at Ford’s, with John Wilkes lurking around at Lincoln’s second inaugural (Lincoln center, JWB top row).  Read more at this blog post on The Blind Flaneur.

JWB stalking MLL

JWB stalking MLL

This nauseating bit about JWB is something I learned this summer at Harper’s Ferry.  Here, from Wikipedia:

Strongly opposed to the abolitionists who sought to end slavery in the U.S., Booth attended the hanging on December 2, 1859, of abolitionist leader John Brown, who was executed for leading a raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry (in present-day West Virginia).[60] Booth had been rehearsing at the Richmond Theatre when he abruptly decided to join the Richmond Grays, a volunteer militia of 1,500 men travelling to Charles Town for Brown’s hanging, to guard against any attempt by abolitionists to rescue Brown from the gallows by force.[60][61] When Brown was hanged without incident, Booth stood in uniform near the scaffold and afterwards expressed great satisfaction with Brown’s fate, although he admired the condemned man’s bravery in facing death stoically.[40][62]

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Tuesday, October 06th, 2009 | Author:

Here is a clear, color-coded map from wikimedia commons that shows the US as Whitman knew it: seceeding states, Union states with slavery, Union states without slavery, territories.  And here is one that shows the same, but in a more traditional cartography:

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Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 | Author:

Whitmaniacs, go HERE NOW for a Library of Congress link for schoolteachers that has digitized images of some of Whitman’s notebooks, including from the Civil War (and a wrenching photo of a dead confederate solider in Spotsylvania).  Don’t just look, READ: their names, their mother’s names, their ages, where they worked, where they’re from, which had been at Pfaff’s, their wounds and injuries (including overdosing), what they need from him (a clergyman, something to read), their qualities (somewhat “feminine”; “tall, well-tann’d,” an “oily, labial” way of speaking; “noble, beloved”);  their battle stories.

Monday, September 28th, 2009 | Author:

Again, Sharon Olds:

You move between the soldiers’ cots

the way I move among my dead,

their white bodies laid out in lines.


You bathe the forehead, you bathe the lip, the cock,

as I touch my father, as if the language

were a form of life.


You write their letters home, I take the dictation

of his firm dream lips, this boy

I love as you love your boys.


They die and you still feel them.  Time

becomes unpertinent to love,

to the male bodies in beds.


We bend over them, Walt, taking their breath

soft on our faces, wiping their domed brows,

stroking back the coal-black Union hair.


We lean down, our pointed breasts

heavy as plummets with fresh spermy milk–

we conceive, Walt, with the men we love, thus, now,

we bring to fruit.

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Sunday, August 23rd, 2009 | Author:

When Whitman says, “I contain multitudes,” or even, “I contradict myself,” he seems happy about the multiple identities that he occupies.  I’ve been thinking about his imagined occupation of these many selves; for me and many other people I know, living in different roles (for me, primarily professor and mother) can be less harmonious and more schizophrenic.  Tonight, on the final night of summer break, though, I’m amazed at the way my personal, professional, and national contexts seem to have aligned this year– and how much Whitman has been arguably present in all three.  The professional immersion in Whitman, counting down to the grand opening of Digital Whitman on August 25 and including our visits to Brooklyn and Camden,  has been intense; Jim Groom said this weekend, “You really can’t help but fall in love with Whitman,” unwittingly echoing something that Whitman himself once said about Lincoln: “I love the man personally.”   Nationally, we are celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, so Ford’s Theater, where Whitman’s young lover watched Lincoln die, has reopened, and I’ve seen the American History Museum’s special exhibit on Lincoln (the hat he wore to Ford’s Theater, the cloth that draped his coffin, the masks worn by the assassination plotters when they were hanged, Mary’s purple dress…).  Obama’s inauguration in this same year, and strong attachment to Lincoln, the president who probably freed the First Lady’s ancestors, resonates deeply as well.  Personally, my son’s mania for American history has carried us to a Lincoln impersonator at the Kennedy Center, to Harper’s Ferry where John Brown attempted his raid (and close to where he was hung while John Wilkes Booth looked on), to Yorktown and to Appomattox, where we stood in the parlor where Lee surrendered to Grant and began the process of reuniting the nation Whitman loved.  I’ve been to Montpelier and thought about slavery, freedom, democracy, and the individual.   Here in Fredericksburg, I live on ground saturated by the blood of Union soldiers, walking distance from the Rappahannock River that 10,000 slaves from nearby counties crossed to reach the Union army and become not slaves but “contraband,” a river Whitman would have seen every day during his December days at the Union “hospital” at the Lacy House.  There are more examples to list, but, in summary, in a powerful alignment of my selves, I feel like I have spent 2009 thus far seriously grappling, personally, professionally, and as a citizen, with the foundational principles of the nation Whitman loved, with the evil that split it in two and the people, places, and events of 1861-1865, those terrible years of reckoning, with race and legacy and region, with rhetoric and poetry–in short, with Whitman.  “Walt Whitman!  Walt Whitman!” said my son back in June.  “Why is everything about Walt Whitman?”  Good question.

Friday, July 17th, 2009 | Author:

This is the home where Whitman found his brother George in December 1862 in the makeshift Union hospital, and spent a week visiting with soldiers before traveling to DC to begin his serious work as a spiritual missionary to the wounded.  This image and the one below of Marye House (Brompton) are courtesy of a digital archive from UMW’s Historic Preservation Department.


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Friday, July 17th, 2009 | Author:

This is the mansion in which the President of the University of Mary Washington resides today, which sits on the Sunken Road battlefield and was used by Confederates during the battle and later as a hospital.  Shown here with rifle pits in front.


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