Virginia for October 20

missvirginia on Oct 19th 2009

I think the best quote that personifies the answer to the prompt questions this week is from Calder’s “Persona Recollections of Walt Whitman”. She mentions that when Whitman heard about a soldier from the West who had never seen an orange, he immediately brought oranges to that soldier on his next visit. I find it similar to his relationship to his readers. Before Whitman, there really wasn’t any poet like him; a poet who wrote of a seductive nature and earth, a mad and violent people who were…us, Americans (almost exclusively in Drum-taps). Whitman saw that none of us had seen these “oranges” of provocative text, so he immediately got to work in order to help us taste the tangy, slightly acidic, and citrusy morsels of the poetry that became a definition of the War and of the people.

In Morris’ book, The Better Angel, I remember reading it this summer and being shocked at Whitman’s view on slavery. It baffled me to think someone who may have been fearful of persecution because of his sexuality, would be somewhat judgmental towards African-Americans. When Morris elaborates on Whitman’s childhood friend who was black, and that he practically was “Uncle Tom”, I felt uneasy. The man who I had thought wanted Americans, ALL Americans, to be free no matter their sex, education, background, origin was a little dashed away in my mind. Morris quotes Whitman’s poetry, “I am the poet of slaves and the masters of slaves,  I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters and I will stand between the masters and the slaves, Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike.” Morris also tells us that Whitman had equally been not fond of “hotheaded” abolitionists nor of die-hard pro-slavery activists. I feel disappointed in Whitman, I almost feel like he resented both parties, that they both had created the War. However, I think that it would have been utterly impossible to go on the way the country was going. A country cannot have some states allowing something and another few finding the same thing illegal. Today we have medical marijuana and different types of legal alcohol (Everclear, allowed in North Carolina, but not in Virginia), albeit none of those issues are as pressing as human bondage, but it creates a kind of understanding of what is in the present. I think Whitman would have been ecstatic for the country to continue being somewhat divided on the slavery issue, as long as there were a way of working it out beyond war. Again, I think Whitman was somewhat of a dreamer and this is just another well-wished dream of probably many Americans of that time. Whitman still continued to unite the Confederacy and the Union through his poetry and not singling out any extreme, violent enemy, but looking at the soldiers as “our boys” alike, despite their north/south origin.

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4 Responses to “Virginia for October 20”

  1. Avatar of bcbottle bcbottle says:

    First, “the tangy, slightly acidic, and citrusy morsels of the poetry,” excellent.

    Second, I agree with you that my view of Whitman was dashed a bit after reading Morris. I think I knew all along that was how Whitman felt, but it was different to read it on the page like that. It’s interesting to think about whether he would have preferred the war never happen or not, particularly when we read his “War is Awesome!” poetry in Drum Taps. I have to wonder whether his opinion on the slavery debate differed before and after the war, or whether he maintained his feelings throughout. I’ll have to read the deathbed version with a critical eye to see if he talks any differently there.

  2. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    I too was kind of taken aback when I learned about Whitman’s less-than-admirable views of slavery. I think that we sometimes take it for granted that everyone in the north was in favor of the ‘Emancipation Proclamation.’ Perhaps Whitman’s views should not be so surprising if we take his background into consideration: he came from a poor family with a history of slave ownership. Traditionally, those have been two groups of people where racism is more prevalent (although, of course, it’s not limited to those groups). I’m pretty sure that phrenology, that pseudo-science so beloved by Whitman, was one of the subjects whose study sought to establish the superiority of the European races.
    So, I wonder what kind of relationship Whitman would seek to establish with readers of African ancestry, especially today? Would he see them as heirs to his tradition? Should we seek to separate the biography from the ideas found in his poetry, which would seem to include readers without taking their race into account?

  3. Avatar of wordbreaker wordbreaker says:

    I do like this idea of Whitman being somewhat of a fence sitter on these issues. For me it sheds some light on how Whitman could treat confederate and union injured alike with no real annimosity towards either. Now, his views on slavery are still problematic as a whole, but as I posted in responce to Brandon, I think that they are a result of Whitman building himself up to be far more than he is, namely he is a mortal and not some nigh omnipotent POET, and thus his ideas are fallible, even if he does not want the reader to think so.

  4. Excellent! If I could write like this I would be well happpy. The more I read articles of such quality as this (which is rare), the more I think there might be a future for the Web. Keep it up, as it were.

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