Virginia for September 29th

missvirginia on Sep 27th 2009

Whitman, especially in his Memoranda during the War, sounds like a poster child for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. However, and obviously, he isn’t rallying for people to “nevah fahgit tha gret wahr”, but simply to never forget the men and boys who gave their life. He seems to be terrified that if he doesn’t record what happened during the war, that people will start to look at it, like a simple tiff between brothers. When in fact, Whitman saw first hand the blood, guts, the gutteral cries from dead, dying, and recovering men. He saw the “real war”.

I grew up in the center of the Civil War. Yes, I know that’s a pretty gutsy claim to make, especially if there are fellow southerners reading along. I grew up in Appomattox. Right where Lee, in a bittersweet moment, surrendered to Grant. When I was little, every family vacation had some sort of educational sidenote. In Maryland, we visited Antietam, in Nova (Northern Virginia) I walked where soldiers ran at Bull Run, after riding horses in Kentucky, my momma dragged me to Perryville. My entire life has danced around the Civil War, and I like it that way. Yet, it is another thing to truly see photographs from the era (thank you, Mathew Brady) and read the hair-raising, gag-inducing scenes from Whitman, Barton, and other “insiders” from the war.

Whitman comments in his memorandum, “in the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.” I think Whitman realized that people were shocked at the horrible detriments of the war when it became public, like the way standards for becoming a surgeon in the war was so little. In the same light, he also realized the almost desired ignorance of the public. They wanted to hear “Our boys are fighting as hard as they could. Your knitted mittens and socks are coming in handy. The food isn’t delectable, but it’s healthy.” Whitman saw first hand, and heard reliable accounts from the boys he helped nurse, that the described situation was a farce and simply wishful thinking.

After helping those boys to health (or at least a little more comfortable death), I think Whitman felt he owed it to them that they would know they didn’t fight in vain just to have all the dirty secrets swept under the table. Whitman also knew the public would want to just sweep it under the table, no one wants to hear about “their boys” dying of diarrhea or some other “undignified” disease. Even though war is ugly, and Whitman certainly painted that picture stealthily and effectively, he does it beautifully as well. The Better Angel mentions both “Sights–The Army Corps, Encamped on the War Field” and “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”. Both poems are great examples of what one critic was quoted in The Better Angel as saying “gentle but lethal”.

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7 Responses to “Virginia for September 29th”

  1. Avatar of jpike1 jpike1 says:

    Wow, I know after I read your post, I thought how much we think alike. =) The quote: “in the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten” stood out amongst the other readings and I thought directly related to this weekend’s prompt. Also, you bring up a good point that Whitman saw how war is ugly but he also described war in a beautiful poetic way. But this has me question if Whitman by making his poetry about the war “beautiful” concealing the “real war”?

  2. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    Virginia, I really like the way some members of our class, including you, are beginning to explore their own regional identities, which is perfect for this project and may be interesting to the other (Yankee) classes.

    Your post really got me thinking, not about the Civil War but about our current wars. Last year the Post ran a series of articles about Walter Reed, about the prevalence of head and face wounds because of IEDs, about amputations, about PTSD, and about the deteriorated, shameful conditions in which our veterans are being treated and housed. You write well about the willful ignorance Whitman feared after the Civil War, and here again, I realize how much Whitman is a poet of OUR times.

  3. Avatar of missvirginia missvirginia says:

    Jessica: I agree, and also in reading your response, I was wondering–Could Whitman have been sensing the need for a beautiful way of describing the grime and dirt of war? And if so…he was always very keen on the idea of making money, do you think he could have seen a way to make money in the ailing culture of America at that time? I hate to think that he would make like a carpetbagger and jump on the demise of part of the country to make a buck…but I think we should question everything, even his motives.

  4. Avatar of missvirginia missvirginia says:

    Scanlon: Indeed, I remember watching Bob Woodruff’s story on ABC, or whichever news channel it was, and being just abhorred at the conditions our vets return to, how the government almost turns a blind eye while patting them on the back and muttering a thank you. “Thanks for practically ending your life as you know it, but damn…you didn’t really do it for us…now we have to recruit more young men to replace you since you have no limbs…” I know that’s harsh, but every insight the general public gets into that realm or sphere that the vets see when they come home is so disheartening. I wish that there were a vet hospital nearby, I’d gladly jumpstart what Whitman began in the Civil War.

  5. Avatar of abcwhitman abcwhitman says:

    I found this part of your post particularly interesting / a unique thought: “no one wants to hear about “their boys” dying of diarrhea or some other “undignified” disease.” How true. As horrible as war is, it’s still romanticized. When we hear the phrase “dying for your country,” we conjure up the image of a heroic young man getting shot in the chest (cue slow motion and dramatic music) and then saying something profound and inspiring with his last breaths. More often than not, however, soldiers die of “undignified” things because war is, for lack of a better word, disgusting.

    Though Whitman describes the nitty-gritty of war, he is also guilty of romanticizing it and thereby stripping it of some of its reality.

  6. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    I think that Whitman’s switch to (what we would call) a more Imagist style of poetry might show how he is trying to strike a balance between the reality in front of him and the poetry inside of him. Of course, his view is not all-encompassing; however, the Imagist style at least marks an attempt to remove commentary from the equation.
    It’s funny how, in our age of mass communication, people can still be so misinformed and disconnected about the war that we are in. It seems like the soldiers today are generally outshone by the contending rhetoric that swirls around them and what they are doing, and so we forget them in their more human moments (read: the vast majority of their time). The window for truly seeing into such things is so small, and requires so much mundane work and focus, that it tends to be ignored in favor of eye-widening soundbytes. I think what Whitman does in his coverage of the Civil War is very clever, because he admits his own shortcomings as a writer in a way that both justifies those shortcomings and glorifies his beloved soldiers at the same time (See “Unnamed Remains the Bravest Soldier”).

  7. Avatar of jpike1 jpike1 says:

    In response to your post earlier, although I hate to admit it, Whitman was concerned about maintaining a relationship with his readers, so maybe Whitman was sensing the need for a beautiful way of describing the realities of war. Also, Whitman was a poet and he could have seen the juxtaposition of the death and horrors of war with the nature imagery that is scattered throughout his prose as “beautiful”.

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