Â Â Â Â So, earlier in the semester, I posted about how Whitmanâs soldier descriptions in Song of Myself were generalized and idealized, with a promise to update on how his writing changed once he got up close and personal with war. Itâs hard to think of a better time to do just that. I am going to track what I see as an important indicator of Whitmanâs connection (or lack thereof) to the Civil War soldiers: his naming of them.
Â Â Â Â As the war (and our reading in the LOA) began, Whitmanâs view of the soldiers seems to have been similar to what it was in 1855, with his descriptions of the returning, defeated Union soldiers after the first Battle of Bull Run remaining pretty general. These men, lacking âthe proud boasts with which you went forth,â do not have names (732). The act of naming someone, or something, signifies an affection that Whitman does not yet seem to feel for these men; instead, they are âqueer looking objectsâ (733). Not surprisingly, this distance rapidly shrinks when Whitman begins to search for his brother in the hospitals.
Â Â Â Â By December of 1862, Whitman had begun to see the faces of the soldiers he was writing and hearing about. Beginning with the âBack to Washingtonâ note, Whitman begins to give names to the soldiers he had previously left untitled. âD.F. Russellâ and âCharles Millerâ are sitting there, with Whitman watching over them (738). That exact specificity does not last though; a mere six months later, Whitman reduces the soldierâs names to abbreviations.
Â Â Â Â The abbreviations are not a sign of a returning disconnect between Whitman and the men: they convey the manâs initials, as we as his unit and where the unit was raised from (presumably around where the soldier was from). Instead, the reduction of names abbreviations reflects how there were simply too many men that Whitman was in contact with for him to convey how he truly felt for each individual. Despite the grand declarations he made about himself, our great poet of democracy had to deal with the limitations of being one man.
Â Â Â Â Whitman deals with that forced namelessness in an interesting way though: instead of bemoaning his powerlessness, Whitman turns it into a glorification of the working-class foot soldier. However, while in âUnnamed Remains the Bravest Soldierâ Whitman seems to solve his own problem and put a plug in for his favorite team, to do it requires him to put that old distance between himself and the men. Like Whitmanâs captive hunters that are betrayed and slaughtered in Song of Myself, the bravest soldier here is also unfailingly young: âOur manliestâour boysâour hardy darlings; no picture gives them. Likely, the typic one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands)âŚâ (748). That distance turns out to be more the rule than the exception with Whitmanâs treatment of the Confederate soldiers.
Â Â Â Â Although it is admirable that Whitman did not appear to show preference for northern soldiers when he was moving through the hospitals, he does in the written descriptions he gives of soldiers. With a couple of exceptions, the personal descriptions he gives of the soldiers he encounters are of Union men, with some men warranting entire notes for themselves. Not so for the Confederates: they remain almost entirely faceless. This should not be surprising, since Whitman was spending his time in Union army hospitals, that doubtlessly gave preference to Union wounded over Confederate wounded, but it shows another of Whitmanâs limitations.Â While he may have celebrated himself as containing galaxies, Whitman was very quickly shown by the war what size he was. It warrants mention though that, while these boundaries may have affected Whitmanâs writings, they drove him to physically do work that belied those limits.
September 27 2009 10:25 pm | Uncategorized