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Civil War and its Influence on Whitman's Works

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1. Introduction

In the course of history, there are certain incisive incidents that mark a period, ring in a new era or alter people’s individual lives most drastically. One such incident is the American Civil War (1861-1865), fought over issues such as slavery, cultural differences and political power (cf. Boyer et al., 230-319). “The Civil War, engulfing two economies and societies, extended far beyond the battlefields” (Boyer et al., 310), therefore, its devastating and disastrous effect on the American people was inevitable. Ordinary men, women and children suddenly found themselves trapped in the midst of a violent conflict that not only split up the nation, but that also increasingly intruded families’ lives and in numerous cases even tore them apart.

For Walt Whitman, one of the initial experiences concerning the Civil War was the enrollment of his brothers George and Andrew, (cf. Folsom/Price, 77) while he himself focused on “writing some extended newspaper pieces about the history of Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Daily Standard” (Folsom/Price, 77). Furthermore, “[h]e began visiting wounded soldiers who were moved to New York hospitals, and he wrote about them in a series called ‘City Photographs’ that he published in the New York Leader in 1862” (Folsom/Price, 77). When his Brother George was wounded during combat, Whitman went to find him and, once faced with the horror of front line casualties , he decided to stay and engage in hospital service or similar assistance (cf. Folsom/Price, 79-80).

In his 1865 poem “The Wound-Dresser”, Whitman describes the work of a medical aid during the war, recalling, to some extend, his personal experiences and impressions. This term paper is meant to focus on the emotional and social relationships in the poem, to point out the characteristics of the narrator, the audience and the wounded and to briefly indicate literary allusions to Whitman’s biography as they are mirrored in the text. It will be attempted to put the poem in its context by taking the historical background into consideration and to analyse the text in regard to its purpose as the author’s way of coping with his past and the past of the nation he loved so much.

2. “The Wound-Dresser” and its Context

As part of Whitman’s “Civil War book Drum-Taps” (Folsom/Price, 80), “The Wound-Dresser” clearly underlines his urge to express his emotions regarding the war, its casualties and the suffering that Whitman has witnessed during his time with “the young soldiers, both Union and Confederate” (Folsom/Price, 80). However, before reaching the point in time which the poem describes, Whitman himself had to go through a series of sufferings.

In 1861, the publisher for the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, Thayer and Eldridge, “declared bankruptcy and sold the plates of Leaves to Boston publisher Richard Worthington, who would continue to publish pirated copies of this edition for decades, creating difficulties for Whitman every time he tried to market a new edition” (Folsom/Price, 76). Furthermore, being on his way to seek out his brother, “he had his pocket picked while changing trains, and he arrived in Washington without a penny to his name” (Morris, 48). Luckily, his brother George was still alive (cf. Folsom/Price, 79; Morris, 50) and the suspicion that he had been mortally wounded (cf. Folsom/Price, 79) did not turn out to be confirmed. Finally, Whitman’s brother Andrew who was “chronically ill” (Folsom/Price, 77) died in 1863, “probably of tuberculosis” (Folsom/Price, 77) and his brother Jesse had to be “committed to an insane asylum in 1864 after he physically attacked his mother” (Folsom/Prise, 77).

In midst of these turbulent events, “The Wound-Dresser” is embedded, portraying only a momentary glimpse of Whitman’s life and focusing on, though not limiting itself to the duties and tasks of a nurse and of the humanitarian need of giving consolation and of being a comfort to the most obvious victims of warfare: the soldiers. This assiduousness, however, did have a strong negative effect on Whitman’s own health and condition, observable in the photographs of Alexander Gardner, “who admired Leaves of Grass and who photographed Whitman frequently during the war years” (Folsom/Price, 87). According to Folsom and Price, “[t]he Gardner photographs show a tired, sombre, yet very determined Whitman, who seemed to be absorbing not only soldiers’ stories but their pain also” (87). In addition, Loving states that “[t]he poet was very likely carrying latent tuberculosis, contracted either from his brother Andrew, who died of the disease in 1863, or from his sick soldiers in the hospitals” (358).

2.1. Social Relations in the Poem

One of the central issues regarding the text of “The Wound-Dresser” is the complex structure of the interdependent relationships of the narrator and the other characters involved. Apart from a mere description of actions and reactions, the reader learns about notions, affections and heartstrings of the protagonists and, thus, gains deep insight into the emotional world of Whitman.

The text itself, which consists of 65 lines grouped into four stanzas and which lacks a constant meter and rhyme scheme, is set up as a mixture of a narrative and an inner monologue: Whitman points out that on one hand he is “looking backward resuming in answer to children” (Whitman, 259: 2), while then again he clings to the situations of his memories as if reliving them. This dualism of time, space and perspective becomes most obvious when the reader is actively guided across the line of presence and past, of reality and retrospective. Once this line is crossed, the audience has become part of the social network and, therefore, part of the poem’s plot. The relationship of narrator/nurse and the wounded has by Whitman’s invitation been extended by the readers, to whom the author refers to as “[…] you up there, / Whoever you are […]” (Whitman, 260: 23f).

The importance of the characters’ correlations becomes evident when Whitman isolates their individual feelings and points out the way in which they depend on one another in their struggle for knowledge and truth, survival and life, providing assistance and reaching out with a helping hand. Hence, analysing the particular stances the characters take in “The Wound-Dresser” provides for a detailed insight into the web of taking influence and the resulting effects that are obtained. Their interactions, be it as a group or as individual beings, mark their roles in the author’s memory and, to a certain extent, in the course of the historical period that the American Civil War comprises and of its political developments. Mancuso explains it thus:

“[…] the images of disrupted families and of the corpses of soldiers suggest not simply the dissolving of the personal self in death but also, read as cultural texts, the dissolving of the constitutional compact with slavery.” (6).

2.1.1. The Narrator

As the voice of the narrator, Whitman himself takes up the task to explain his sentiments and to retell the audience and himself the circumstances of his time as a medical assistant during the Civil War. First requested and persuaded by his fictional audience, namely “[…] maidens and young men I love and that love me […]” (Whitman, 159: 13) to “[…] be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth […]” (Whitman, 259: 9) and to tell of his experiences with the wounded, he soon completely descends into the world of his memories, describing his actions, emotions and the scenery in present tense.

The way the narrator responds to his listeners’ demand to learn about the war implies that he sees it as his duty to “[…] resum[e] in answer to children […]” (Whitman, 259: 2) and to “[…] recall the experience sweet and sad […]” (Whitman, 261: 63). Likewise, Whitman appears to be no less assiduous when his work as a medical aid is concerned:

“Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,

Straight and swift to my wounded I go,

[………………..]

Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,

To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,

To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss […]” (260: 25-31).

Several plausible reasons can be offered for this eagerness, the most obvious being charity. This assumption finds support in the text when Whitman tells:

“One [soldier] turns to me his appealing eyes – poor boy!

I never knew you,

Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you,

If that would save you.” (260: 37f).

His pleading inner monologues elaborate on this theme even further, for example while examining the bullet wound through “[…] the neck of the cavalry-man […]” (Whitman, 260: 41):

“(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!

In mercy come quickly.)” (Whitman, 260: 44).

In addition, the irreconcilableness between Whitman’s love for his country or, as Folsom and Price put it, his “faith in union, wholeness, the ability of a self and a nation to contain contradiction and absorb diversity” (79) and the fact that he himself did not enlist to fight due to the fact that he “was already in his early forties when the war began” (Folsom/Price, 77) may have intensified, if not triggered, his efforts. The vast amount of value the young men’s personal sacrifices possess for Whitman is mirrored by him mentioning “their priceless blood […]” (260: 28) and by calling them “[…] unsurpass’d heroes […]” (259: 8). Throughout the poem, the author does not judge nor express his thoughts regarding the justification of either side of the war, he rather unmistakably declares both sides of the conflict as being “[…] equally brave […]” (259: 8).

Yet, there is a shift in Whitman’s mode of action. He begins as the “Soldier alert […]” (Whitman, 260: 15) who is “[…] [a]rous’d and angry […]” (Whitman, 259: 4) and ready “[…] to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war […]” (Whitman, 259: 4) or to “[…] plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge […]” (Whitman, 260: 16). Whitman then undergoes a metamorphosis which he sums up by stating:

“But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead […]” (259: 5f).

Picker’s conclusion that “Whitman abandons his enthusiastic drumbeating to confront the disastrous toll in wartime casualties” (7) affirms this idea.

Whether this change in mood is based on his age shift and him becoming “[a]n old man bending […]” (Whitman, 259: 1), his increased awareness of the value of human life and the “[…] priceless blood […]” (Whitman, 260: 28) that is being shed or simply because he sees it more important to “[…] pacify with a soothing hand […]” (Whitman, 261: 61) remains speculative. Of indisputable certainty, however, is Whitman’s love and compassion for both his listeners and the wounded soldiers he talks about. He calls his audience “[…] maidens and young men I love and that love me […]” (Whitman, 259: 13) and the soldiers’ reactions to his care are merged in the remark that “[…] [m]any a soldier’s loving arms about this [Whitman’s] neck have cross’d and rested, / Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips. […]” (Whitman, 261: 64f). This framework of emotional bonds finds its social counterpart in the different ways of interdependence between the groups of protagonists with the narrator being in a central position. The children the author is about to give an account on are quoted thus:

“Come tell us old man […]

[………………..]

What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,

Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?” (Whitman, 259: 3-12).

Children and soldiers alike appear grateful for the author’s aid, be it telling his story, giving comfort or simply dressing wounds. Nevertheless, this gratefulness is returned through the patience with which Whitman fulfils these demands addressed at him.

2.1.2. The Wounded

The soldiers are the substance of the poem, they and the dealing with their suffering are the central issues of Whitman’s report. The author accompanies each of them from the moment they are brought in “[…] after the battle […]” (Whitman, 260: 27) and guides them, if necessary, up to their last minute to remain with them even after death and to “[…] silently watch […]”

(Whitman, 259: 6) over them.

The emotional range of the wounded soldiers varies from fright and fear over the desire for interpersonal contact to calm desperation and resignation. The soldier with “[…] the crush’d head […]” (Whitman, 260: 40) could be seen to symbolise the frantic terror and anguish of the hurt who is about to cross the line to madness due to a pain-inflicted shock and to whom Whitman in his mind directs his wish “[…] poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away […]” (Whitman, 260: 40). Likewise, the craving for emotive interaction with the narrator is evident in the young man who “[…] turns to [him] his appealing eyes […]” (Whitman, 260: 37). Finally, the soldier with “[…] the amputated hand […]” (Whitman, 261: 45) personifies the distressed hopelessness inherent in the victims of war as we learn that “[h]is eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not to look on the bloody stump, / [a]nd has not yet look’d on it.” (Whitman, 261: 48f).

Apart from the plain physical care the soldiers are given, they also receive what may be as important for their souls as medical attention is for their survival:

“The hurt and wounded I [Whitman] pacify with soothing hand,

I sit by the restless all the dark night […]” (Whitman, 261: 60f)

And further:

“[…] I resign’d myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them […]” (Whitman,

259: 5f).

In return for this honest compassion, they react with loving gratefulness, and even seem to adopt the author as some sort of a father figure:

“[…] Many a soldier’s loving arms about this [Whitman’s]

Neck have cross’d and rested,

Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips. […]”

(Whitman, 261: 64f).

There is no hint contained in the text that indicates a relationship between the audience and the wounded soldiers, yet the coincidence between the listeners being called “[…] young men and maidens […]” (Whitman, 259: 3) while the reader learns about the soldiers that “[…] some are so young […]” (Whitman, 261: 62) points to an intended analogy which closes the circle of audience, narrator and the poem’s subject (the soldiers).

2.1.3. The Audience

The protagonist group which mainly represents the readers’ path through the poem is certainly the fictional listeners of Whitman’s depiction. Both the literary and the real audiences are in the same position, they long to hear about the author’s story and they desire to be led through the narrator’s memories. This wish is most obviously uttered when the request is directed at Whitman:

“Come tell us old man, […]

[………………..]

[…] what saw you to tell us?

What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,

Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what

Deepest remains?” (Whitman, 259: 3-12).

They also ask him to “[…] be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth, / […] armies so rapid so wondrous […]” (Whitman, 259: 9f). The narrator then offers fictional listeners and readers alike to accompany him into his past with the words:

“[…] while for you up there,

Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.”

(Whitman, 260: 23f).

Whitman’s benefit in this relationship can be derived from his development from a young and aggressive to an old and caring man, his intention might be to teach the audience and the readers that youth and its haste demand responsibility and that care and compassion are important virtues not to be omitted. The emotional world of the listeners, apart from curiosity, remains hidden, it thus seems to be the readers’ sentiments that assume this role during the poem, the process of emotive development for this protagonist group takes place not in the text, but in the reader. Here, at the latest, Whitman builds a bridge from the fictional to the factual audience.

3. Conclusion

With “The Wound-Dresser”, Walt Whitman has created a shockingly enthralling poem and a personal statement regarding war and peace, life and death, separation and unity. From his youth of destructive enthusiasm, he develops to a settled man of sensible mercifulness, teaching the reader a lesson in ethics. He tries to sharpen his audience’s sense for injustice and charity, always arguing from a humanitarian viewpoint. Whitman intends to morally educate and, thereby, change his nation for the better without arguing about either sides’ motives.

At the same time, he writes down his memories to overcome his “[…] dreams’ projections […]” (Whitman, 261: 20; 59) that most certainly must have haunted him for the rest of his life. Therefore, “The Wound-Dresser” also marks a therapeutic step in regard to coming to terms with his experiences. Though the poem is in places very gruesome and graphic, there lies a deep beauty in it that is mainly due to the blandness of Whitman’s care and to the warmth he possesses and gives.

The relationship between audience / readers, narrator and the soldiers is very intimate on purpose. Through the close binding, the reader opens up to the characters’ suffering and feels compassion and hopefully wishes that never again a war will bring such agony upon mankind. Finally, “The Wound-Dresser” is by far more then a mere account of past events, it is a reminder that choices can be made and that the right choices will sometimes result in a better tomorrow.

4. Works Cited

Whitman, Walt. “The Wound-Dresser”. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. 259-261

Boyer, Paul S., et al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Concise Fifth Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price. Re-scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to his Life and Work. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Mancuso, Luke. The Strange Sad War Revolving: Walt Whitman, Reconstruction, and the Emergence of Black Citizenship. Drawer: Camden House, Inc., 1997

Morris, Roy Jr. The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Picker, John M. “’Red War Is My Song’: Whitman, Higginson, and Civil War Music”. Walt Whitman and Modern Music: War, Desire, and the Trials of Nationhood. Ed. Lawrence Kramer. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000.

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