Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Review: Now the Drum of War

Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War
By Robert Roper

“Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books.” – Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days”

A bibliography of all the books written about the American Civil War since its opening shots fired at Fort Sumter, would easily number in the hundreds of thousands. The Civil War is, by far and away, the most written about topic in American History, and though many have tried, with greater or lesser success, no one, not even those who lived through those four battle bloodied years, has been able to capture the horror of the “real war” in print as it was truly experienced by those who participated in it.

Robert Roper, in his book, “Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War,” has pointedly circumnavigated Whitman’s challenge to future historians by not writing a book specifically about the war. Rather than offering his readers a history of the Civil War, he has instead offered up a not only biography of Walt Whitman, but a biography of the whole Whitman family.

Walt Whitman came from a large, working-class family of Long Island, New York. He was the second of nine children born to Walter and Louisa (Van Velsor) Whitman, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Like many large families, some of the Whitman siblings remained but sad shadows in the light of their more talented and successful siblings. Though Mr. Roper concentrates on the more successful members of the family – Walt, the poet; George, the soldier; and Jeff, the engineer – his narrative does not neglect the lesser known individuals of the Whitman family. Additionally, the author brings a new interpretation of Whitman’s mother, Louisa (Van Velsor) Whitman, the touchstone of the family correspondence, correcting the flawed portrait of a largely illiterate matriarch painted by previous Whitman scholars.

Mr. Roper begins his narrative of the Whitman family, nearly at the beginning with the family firmly established in the working class neighborhoods of Long Island. He follows the family who were constantly on the move, from building, living in, and selling house after house until finally coming to rest, more or less permanently in Brooklyn, and the outbreak of the Civil War.

Shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter, George Whitman enlisted in the 13th New York Militia, a three month regiment and left for the war. After his term of service expired he enlisted as a lieutenant in the 51st New York Infantry. He eventually rose to the rank of major in that regiment, and led his men through twenty-one major battles. He was wounded at Fredericksburg.

Two hours after reading George’s name listed in a casualty list in the printed in the New York Herald, Walt packed a few clothes, withdrew $50 from his mother’s bank account and headed south, first to Washington, D.C. and then on to Fredericksburg, where he found his younger brother only slightly wounded by a shell fragment that had pierced his cheek. Walt’s visit with his with his wounded brother would prove to be that catalyst that changed his life.

Deeply moved by what he saw and experienced at Fredericksburg Walt determined to help where ever he could. Through acquaintances in Washington he was able to find a place to stay and a part-time government job when left him plenty of time to visit the hospitals around Washington, and care for those soldiers who have born the battle.

Walt was a frequent visitor to the hospitals around Washington, making as many as 600 visits. He brought the wounded and dying soldiers small gifts of paper, pens, stamps, fruit, candy and other various items he deemed would be helpful to those he cared for. He sat beside the beds of the wounded soldiers, and talked to them of their lives at home, read them their letters from family and friends, wrote letters for them, held their hands, consoled them, and watched them die. They served as inspiration for his poetry.

Mean while, Mrs. Whitman was home in Brooklyn, receiving letters from her two sons away, George writing from various battlefields, and Walt from Washington. Louisa served as the hub of the family correspondence, all the while caring for the other members of the Whitman family left behind.

It is in the interweaving of these three stories, George at the front, Walt in the Washington hospitals, and Louisa at home that Mr. Roper has excelled. The largely concentrating his focus on these three stories the author does not fail to write about the other members of the Whitman family, most notably, Jesse, the oldest, mentally unstable and violently deranged; Jeff, chief assistant of the Brooklyn Waterworks who purchased a substitute and avoided the draft; the drunk and dying Andrew, and the feebleminded youngest sibling Edward; though less attention has been paid to the Whitman sisters, Mary Elizabeth and Hannah. Using the voluminous correspondence between the members of this large family as well as the journals and notebooks of the poet himself, the author gives his readers not a glimpse of the minutia of war, but rather the larger picture of battles and battlefields, the dead, the wounded and dying, the hospitals and the lives of those left behind.

Mr. Roper also deserves deep praise for not shying away from the topic of Walt’s homosexuality. Extrapolating from the poet’s notebooks and lists of names, Mr. Roper concludes that Walt had an active and open sex life. Though, he most certainly did not sleep with every one listed in his notebooks, there was enough attraction to them for Whitman to make a note of their names, and so too with the boys in his care in the Washington hospitals.

“Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War,” serves as an excellent companion to Whitman’s poetry. A journalist, historian and fiction writer, Mr. Roper provides his readers with the information to more properly put Whitman’s poetry into the context of its time; placing it against his personal life, the lives of his family and momentous events of the Civil War.

ISBN 978-0-8027-1553-1, Walker & Co., © 2008, Hardcover, 432 pages, photographs, endnotes & footnotes, bibliography & index. $28

READING AID: The Whitman Family Tree

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