I have coined a corny but Groom-appeasingly tech-ish acronym to encapsulate our prevailing interest in adapting Whitman to a modern context:
WWWDOT. (What Would Whitman Do… Today? Huzzah! Of course, to describe the process by which we figure out Whitman’s compatibility with digital communication, we can use the clever little acronym WWWDOTCOM, or “What Would Whitman Do to a Computer?” There’s also a little innuendo in that one that rightly brings Whitman’s playful flesh-mongering back into the conversation.)
More specifically, since this is the post immediately preceding the Mary Wash Whitmans’ trip to the Fredericksburg battlefield, I find myself drawn into the speculating on Whitman’s probable relationship to battlefield preservation. How does the notion of cordoning off and essentially memorializing a piece of ground interact with Whitman’s sense of the total fluidity of every physical object, his assumption, as articulated from the first edition of Leaves of Grass, that any molecule making up a particular object might soon make up any other, that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (27)? Would Whitman be on the side of battlefield preservation, or shrug at its futility?
In his introduction to Memoranda During the War, Whitman affirms that “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not” (5). Not only does he defy the hope that a historical (geographical, demographic, whatever etc.) stranger to the war—that is, one who was never “the actual soldier of 1862-‘65” (5)—might ever understand that war’s experiences, he also identifies “the few great battles,” and thus the fields on which they were fought, as the exact spots at which the non-soldier might superficially taste the war and presume to understand a little of it. In this sense, Whitman anticipates the “battlefield tour” as a vehicle for shallow “re-living,” if the tourists believe they can come away with any semblance of the field’s erstwhile trauma.
Whitman further underscores his conviction that the American Civil War passes all understanding by linking that cosmic bafflement with a trope that decidedly refuses the idea of battlefield-as-stable-monument: quicksand. Betsy Erkkila places particular emphasis on the poem “Quicksand Years That Whirl Me I Know Not Whither” as an illustration of the degree to which the war had destabilized Whitman’s broad sense of oneness with the world beyond the solitary Self. This is the version of the poem published in the 1867 Leaves:
“QUICKSAND years that whirl me I know not whither,
Your schemes, politics, fail—lines give way—substances mock and elude me;
Only the theme I sing, the great and strong-possess’d soul, eludes not;
One’s-self, must never give way—that is the final substance—that out of all is sure;
Out of politics, triumphs, battles, death—what at last finally remains?
When shows break up, what but One’s-Self is sure?” (31a)
Whitman here transmutes his sublime conception of the constant, benign flux and fluidity of nature into the feeling that “substances mock and elude me,” and reveals the extent to which the grand interconnectedness of “One’s-Self” with “the word EN-MASSE” (6) had broken down in the maddening cycle of “politics, triumphs, battles, deaths” that characterize the “quicksand years” of 1861-65. The sucking, all-devouring slippage of a pit of quicksand provides a convenient topographical illustration of Whitman’s consternation in the Memoranda at the thought of “how much, and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been—buried in the grave, the eternal darkness!” (6). If the physical world perpetually shifts and changes, and time acts like soil that swallows the memories that walk over it, then Whitman’s logical conclusion might be total resignation at that wartime transience and loss, and an absolute refusal of the impulse to preserve (stories, fields, etc.), when what he preserves will not change the fact that the full story of a even a single combatant “will never be written—perhaps must not and should not be” (5).
Still, we know how Whitman gets with impossible tasks. Having established in the Memoranda introduction that the infinitely detailed “black infernal background” of the war can never be fully shown, he assays “a few stray glimpses into… that many-threaded drama” (6). Even if the war’s battlefields only contain a shred of their “original” soil and stone, and just as little of their wartime appearance, Whitman suggests that it is not up to him or any other non-veteran to deny those scraps their grim significance. The trope of “quicksand years” here augments the urgent need to salvage whatever small memories might remain, and so reveals Whitman’s probable conviction that, despite the reality of a field slipping away with the rain or getting covered up by houses (even Dr. Scanlon’s, man!), we have to take whatever “stray glimpses” of that field we can get. We just can’t delude ourselves into thinking we’ll get any more. And so, on to the visitor’s center.
By the way, WWWDOTCOM is a registered 2009 trademark of Sam Protich, Esq.