America's Poet as Brother

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Reviewed by Nicholas Delbanco
Sunday, December 7, 2008


Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War

By Robert Roper

Walker. 421 pp. $28

Walt Whitman stands -- together with Emily Dickinson -- as an icon of 19th-century poetry. Unlike the reclusive Belle of Amherst, however, Whitman staked a public claim, and his clarion call was a loud one; as he famously expressed it, "I celebrate myself." Leaves of Grass is perhaps the single most referred to and examined of our country's texts; it announced itself full-throatedly and has not ceased to sing.

Biographies of Whitman are numerous, and the bookshelf of critical assessments continues to expand. It isn't evident, therefore, that another book is needed, but Robert Roper's Now the Drum of War does strive for something new. His subtitle is "Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War," and he offers up a fresh perspective: the bard as family man. Our image of the bearded poet -- with his vagabond's hat and open Byronic collar, his walking-stick and swagger -- is one of carefree independence. In the national imagination Whitman strides down city street and country lane, or sits silently beside a dying soldier's bed. No matter how many his male companions, and how often he sought company, he remains -- in our mind's eye -- alone.

In fact, he wrote his mother almost daily and stayed close to his siblings. He lived with the former for most of his life and spent his last 11 years in a brother's home. That brother, George, a successful soldier and businessman, provides a kind of counterpoint in Roper's book and (along with the less closely considered brother Jeff) rounds the portrait out. Via letters and notebook entries, Now the Drum of War fills in important blanks; we end up with a sense of the individual as part of an impressive collective entity called Whitman.

"The Whitmans of Brooklyn were a troubled, brilliant, poor, aspiring, declining, woefully afflicted, remarkably successful clan," Roper writes. "The darkest terrors of the nineteenth century shadowed their hearth. Madness touched several of their number, and congenital disorders and incurable infections harrowed them. Yet some of them did rise and rise. The second-oldest son, Walter, born 1819, the same year as Melville and two years after Thoreau, became America's most original poet. . . . But two other brothers, George, born in 1829, and Jeff, in 1833, were also specially gifted, and their accomplishments are likewise hard to explain."

The book does attempt explanation, though, crediting much of the boys' success to their mother. With no formal education, Mrs. Whitman nonetheless conveyed a kind of clear-eyed wisdom, keeping track of her children's business ventures, building projects and tenants. There's a corrective here, as well, to the notion of Walter Whitman Sr. as a drunken failure. Roper suggests he was luckless, but neither unloved nor undeserving; though the family moved often, they never lacked a roof.

Even when the siblings were far apart or (in the case of troubled and eventually institutionalized brother Jesse) at each other's throats, there was an overarching attitude of mutual supportiveness; what money they had was freely shared, what space they shared was home. And all of them worked with their hands, Walt as a skilled printer. "The combination of physical labor at a craft, leading to membership in a white-collar profession, became a Whitman family hallmark," Roper writes.

As Roper's title (taken from Whitman's "City of Ships") suggests, most of this book deals with poems, notebook entries and letters written in or about the war. There are detailed descriptions of wartime maneuvers and conditions in the field. However, with the principal exception of Whitman's elegy for Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd," Roper finds his poetry about the Civil War slight and disappointing.

More central to this volume is a study of the writer as nurse. As others have suggested, Whitman may have been compelled by his soldier-brother's injuries to pay visits to the hospitals in Washington, D.C. He searched ceaselessly for news of his brother's condition when George was taken prisoner and lay at mortal risk. Whatever the motive -- and there's a more-than-casual suggestion that it was more than casually romantic -- he performed a genuine service as Samaritan and scribe for many gravely injured men. Whitman brought apples and tobacco and a healing, hands-on attention to the youthful wounded, wrote letters for them and -- after their deaths -- wrote about them to their families. On Dec. 26, 1864, he wrote in his own notebook:

"To night I have been looking over Georges diary . . . It is merely a skeleton of dates, voyages, places camped in or marched through . . . But I can realize clearly that by calling upon even a tithe of the myriads of living & actual facts . . . [in] this dry list of times & places, it would outvie all the romances in the world . . . in such a record as this lies folded a perfect poem of the war." Much of that "perfect poem" is recaptured here. ยท

Nicholas Delbanco, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Count of Concord."

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