Research Paper: Walt Whitman and the Civil War

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Whitman's Drum-taps: Poignantly Realistic, Verifiably Patriotic

Walt Whitman's Civil War-related poetry was powerful yet paradoxical. On the one hand, early in his war-related poetry, he appeared to view the war as a wondrous event for democracy. On the other hand -- almost as though he was schizophrenic -- he saw the Civil War as an abhorrent desecration of humans. It is painfully clear that he was conflicted morally and creatively. His work in hospitals -- let along his sobering and fascinating poetry -- clearly shows his humanitarianism. The scholarship based in response to Whitman's Civil War poetry -- in particular, his noted work in Drum-taps -- is substantial. The viewpoints in the academic literature vary dramatically as to what Whitman's real attitude was about the war, about the soldiers, and his thinking about the moral and social value of the United States during its most bloody hours.

Notwithstanding come critics' negative views, confliction and passion led him to a harsh and sobering realism -- not romanticism -- as he wrote Drum-taps and his other Civil War-themed verse. He was a poet, after all, not a philosopher, or a politician, or a preacher. Some of the viewpoints reflected in this research are not specifically pointed to Whitman's alleged romanticizing of the war, but actually questioned Whitman's patriotism and his justification for spending so much time in the Civil War hospitals -- and connected to that criticism, were the attacks (unjustified and slanderous) on Whitman because he wrote so poignantly and graphically about the obscene conditions in hospitals.


Those who attacked Whitman unfairly -- out of ignorance, bias against his lifestyle or for other unknown reasons -- need to be called out and that is what this research has done; those passages by critics that assert falsely that he was too romantic or not patriotic are juxtaposed with critics' views that are supportive of Whitman and hence of great value in the available literature.

Whitman, Slavery and the Civil War -- an Introduction

The Civil War was anything but civil. It was barbaric and brutal. An estimated 620,000 soldiers died. In the North, 250,152 soldiers died of disease and in the South, 164,000 died of disease (Faust, 2008, p. xi). Slavery was certainly not the only reason that the South and the North squared off against each other. The technical reason for the Civil War, and history reveals this truth when the truth is sought, was the conflict of state's rights. Do states within the United States have the power to make laws that depart from the Constitutional laws of the United States? The answer from the North was no. The response from the South was, well then, we'll form our own country and you can go your way while we go ours. Meantime, the war was on.

What was Whitman's view of slavery and of Black folks? In David Reynolds' book (Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman 150th Anniversary Edition) the author points out that Whitman's well-known poem (the 1855 edition) "I Sing the Body Electric" was originally titled "Slaves" (Reynolds, 2005, p. 88). The "political force of the lines describing the humanity and nobility of the auctioned slave: 'There swells and jets in his heart…there all passions and desires…all reachings and aspirations…" (Reynolds, p. 89). This passage and others sited by Reynolds "proclaimed" to the author that "African-Americans were fully human, just like whites -- a radical message for Whitman's day" (p. 89). By offering this passage Reynolds asserts that Whitman was "…escaping the racism that pervaded white society"; Reynolds believed that Whitman's themes in Leaves of Grass "emphasized the humanity of African-Americans" (p. 89).

"I am the poet of slaves," Whitman wrote in 1855. "I go with slaves of the earth equally with the masters / and I will stand between the masters and the slaves / Entering into both / So that both shall understand me alike" (quoted by Reynolds, p. 89). Meanwhile in 1858 Whitman wrote, "who believes that the Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not America for the Whites? And is it not better so?" (Brooklyn Daily Times, May 6, 1858, quoted by Klammer, 1995, p. 161).

Whitman seems to go back and forth about Blacks and slavery, and hence it is difficult to pin him down on racial issues. "The institution of slavery is not at all without its redeeming points," he wrote in a May 1857 editorial; two months later he explained that for southern states "…the infusion of slaves and the prevalent use of their labor are not objectionable on politico-economic grounds" (Klammer, p. 161). But wait, at the conclusion of that editorial he adds, "America is not the land for slaves, on any grounds" (Klammer, p. 161).

The Literature -- Literary Criticism on Drum-Taps

William Moss: Walt Whitman in Dixie the Southern Literary Journal

This critique by Moss is vicious albeit it does not specifically take the position that Whitman's Drum-Taps -- or his other Civil War-related verse -- is too romantic or too realistic or any blend of both or either style. These passages in this journal article are presented in the context of how seriously and brutally the Northern creative artists were despised in the South. As a contribution to this research the scholarly piece by Moss sets the tone for one of the sidebar battles in the middle of the 19th Century -- the loathing and fear that the South had for the North.

Certainly the Southern writers and intellectuals were not fans of Whitman. Quite the contrary. William Moss writes in the Southern Literary Journal (Moss, 1990, p. 98) that a parody of a Whitman poem was published in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1862. The editor, George William Bagby, said it was "not only the best imitation, by long odds, of Walt Whitman, the b'hoy-poet and representative man of Yankeedon…but an excellent bit of sarcasm besides" (Moss, p. 98). This cryptic essay did not reference Drum Taps per se but Moss quoted from Southern critics as to Whitman's Civil War poetry. Frank Whittington said that Whitman's "genius comprehends (or includes) humanity, but is not to be comprehended by it!" (Moss, p. 102).

These are Southern writers and intellectuals and it is obvious they are very biased of course against the North and against poets, writers, politicians and other leaders from the north. Whittington said that when he reads respected critics who "gravely" commend Whitman's war poetry "…I begin to fear that the literary character of this country is becoming hopelessly perverted and rotten as the political" (Moss p. 103). Whittington goes on:

If Mr. Walt Whitman is a poet, he challenged, "…let us at once reverse all our former critical and aesthetic judgments…clearness of imagination and conception, purity of diction, loftiness of tone, and grandeur of moral insight" (Moss, p. 103). However, Whittington continued, what Whitman has produced embraces "…the most hideous manifestations of morbid egotism, and introspective vanity, united to an unmorality so complete, that all distinctions between vice and virtue, purity and filthiness, fail to be understood…" (Moss, p. 103).

As if that assessment is not blatantly bitter and ruthlessly inaccurate enough, John Reuben Thompson is quoted by Moss on page 100 of Moss's essay: "The extravagance of the style, the beastliness of the sentiments, the blatant blasphemy of the whole performance, its profanation of every tender and holy impulse…its frequent indecency of language" and even "the bizarre appearance of the book" made Thompson wonder if Whitman's Civil War work was the production "of a lunatic" or "a solemn hoax upon the public" (Moss, p. 100).

Again, these are angry Southerners, but they are objecting to Whitman's poetry on the basis of their terse ideology, and simply making up abusive passages because they hat the North so vehemently. Thompson went on to say that Whitman's poetry amounted to "profane, bestial rigmarole" and that Whitman "glories in materialism of the most degraded kind…" (Moss, p. 100). This is a wholly disagreeable and ignorant approach to the brilliance and realism of Whitman.

Richard Maurice Bucke, et al., Walt Whitman

Bucke is a supportive author with valuable contributions to Whitman's poetry. On page 170 of Walt Whitman, the authors note that Drum-Taps "has a special celebrity" however these poems "[are] not by any means equal to those which, in date of composition, preceded them" (Bucke, et al., 1884, p. 170). Among the poems that surpass Drum-Taps in Bucke's view are "Song of Myself," "Song of the Open Road," "Faces" and "Songs before Parting" (p. 170). Bucke references Th. Bentzon (a "clever critic") who admired Drum-Taps and said that Whitman's genius has "…not yet lost all its original brightness, nor appears less than Archangel ruined" (Bucke, p. 170). Okay, Bucke writes in 1884, so Drum-Taps is "immeasurably above (not by degree merely, but by kind) that of every other poet of the present time." That said, Bucke goes on (p.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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