Ideas

The echoes of Walt Whitman’s ‘Drum-Taps’

When his younger brother was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, Walt Whitman rushed to his side, thus beginning three years of tending the wounded.
Matthew Brady
When his younger brother was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, Walt Whitman rushed to his side, thus beginning three years of tending the wounded.

In October 1865, a 22-year-old wordsmith living on Ashburton Place, behind the Massachusetts State House, filed what has to be one of the nastiest book reviews ever published. The volume before him was “an insult to art,” a brash and haughty Henry James told readers of The Nation, a then-months-old New York weekly. Written in free verse, each line beginning “in resolute independence of its companions, without a visible goal,” the book demonstrated, according to James, “the efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”

The poet himself James found downright distasteful. “Mr. Whitman,” he harrumphed, “is very fond of blowing his own trumpet.”

Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps,” a collection of Civil War-themed poems, was first published 150 years ago this month, just a few weeks after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of Whitman’s idol, President Abraham Lincoln. With scenes from the army camps, paeans to Manhattan and the American flag, and stories of wartime America from a variety of perspectives, it traced the whole arc of a war with which Whitman had been intimately involved. But the poet’s ambitions were grander still — Whitman evoked a vision of the country he thought the newly reunited states should aspire to become.

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Because Whitman published “Drum-Taps” — on his own dime — so quickly after the war, he had not had an opportunity to reckon in the work with the conflict’s dramatic ending. Six months later, he republished the book with a “sequel,” a cycle of poems reflecting on the war’s end, including the elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d.” It was the expanded version that James so savagely reviewed.

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New York Review Books earlier this month reissued “Drum-Taps” in its entirety (with the sequel) for the first time since 1865. Elegantly edited by Lawrence Kramer, a professor of English at Fordham University who has set many of Whitman’s poems to music, the new pocket-size paperback will go a long way toward proving that young James was — as he later admitted — just plain wrong. Woefully and even hilariously wrong.

But there is a lot more at stake than that. As Kramer writes in the introduction, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, many of the issues at stake then, “which many of us once thought settled, have lately come back to haunt the still unfinished experiment of American democracy.”

Indeed, the resurfacing of “Drum-Taps” for the first time in a century and a half serves as a timely reminder that Whitman was not so much reveling in the carnage of a country divided — a charge leveled at him in recent years — as hoping that, in his poetry, readers would find the moral resources for what needed to come next: national reconstruction, in the most profound sense.

If it hasn’t quite turned out that way, one can think of a few parties more responsible than a sexually heterodox and — at least late in life — avowedly socialist poet whose purpose in life and literature was, as he put it, “to soar, to sing the idea of all.”

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Fresh from the opera late on the night of April 12, 1861, Whitman was walking along Broadway, toward home in Brooklyn, when, as he recalled in his memoir “Specimen Days,” he “heard in the distance the loud cries of the newsboys, who came presently tearing and yelling up the street.” The newly formed Confederate Army had attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The war, long threatened and long feared, was on.

In Whitman’s depiction of this moment in “Drum-Taps,” the spirit of Manhattan itself is awakened. In the first poem, which gives the volume its title, he describes how

“...the Lady of this teeming and turbulent city,

Sleepless, amid her ships, her houses, her incalculable wealth,

With her million children around her — suddenly,

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At dead of night, at news from the south,

Incens’d, struck with clench’d hand
the pavement.”

Though it was long sympathetic to the Cotton Kingdom because of its business ties, New York City eagerly mobilized for war. “How your soft opera-music changed, and the drum and fife were heard in their stead,” Whitman sings in “Drum-Taps.”

Years later, in “Specimen Days,” Whitman called “the volcanic upheaval of the nation” in the early days of the Civil War “the best lesson of the century, or of America,” and added that it was “a mighty privilege to have been part of it.”

Whitman would become part of the conflict itself in December 1862. Suffering from what he described in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson as a “New York stagnation,” Whitman left for Fredericksburg, Va., where his brother, a soldier in the Union Army, had reportedly been wounded. The poet began volunteering as a nurse in the Army hospitals in Washington, D.C., and, occasionally, in the field, distributing gifts of money, tobacco, trinkets, and fruit to the wounded and often dying young men and writing lettersto their families.

Whitman, a man whose sexual proclivities defied any easy categorization in his own time or ours, became intimate with some of the soldiers, and often describes his visits to them in the kind of sensuous terms that end his poem “The Dresser”:

“Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,

Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.”

Library of Congress
Walt Whitman with a rebel soldier and friend, Pete Doyle, in Washington in 1865.

In his introduction, Kramer incisively notes that such descriptions served a specific aesthetic and even political goal for Whitman. The poet’s erotically charged relationships with the men “not only offered physical and spiritual gratification,” Kramer writes, “but also provided the libidinal underpinning of political and social order.” The affections and the sentiments that arose in the field and in the hospitals during the war — Whitman cared for Confederate soldiers no less eagerly than for Union troops — would serve as a blueprint for the national fellow-feeling necessary for reconciliation afterward. “For Whitman,” Kramer concludes, “personal union was the basis of the Union.”

The purpose of “Drum-Taps” was to represent that idea in the text itself. In an early poem, Whitman describes it as “a book separate, not link’d with the rest.”

That makes its peculiar publishing history all the more startling. Only two years after its publication, Whitman folded much of “Drum-Taps” into the fourth edition of his ever-evolving opus, “Leaves of Grass.”

According to Kramer, an obvious partisan on the issue, much was lost in that transition. “Many of the poems were outsourced to other sections of the big book; some were revised and/or retitled,” Kramer says, “a few were thrown out; a few extraneous poems were dragged in; those that remained were reshuffled.”

For a book so firmly committed to “the idea of union,” Kramer notes, it was nothing less than a “retraction” for Whitman to dismantle it so soon after the war.

Provocatively, Kramer suggests that “the primary aim” of his new edition is to “undo the damage Whitman did to his own legacy” by disassembling the October 1865 version of “Drum-Taps.” Only implied by Kramer is the damage Whitman’s retraction may have inflicted upon the idea of union — and perhaps even, upon the Union itself.

Wounded Civil War Union soldiers at a Washington, D.C., hospital in September 1864.
Library of Congress
Wounded Civil War Union soldiers at a Washington, D.C., hospital in September 1864.

It’s difficult to think of a writer as antique as Whitman whose legacy is still as much up for grabs. Undoubtedly, that is a consequence of the ongoing contention around the themes that preoccupied him before, during, and after the Civil War: liberty, union, nationalism, equality, individuality, democracy, identity. For a 195-year-old, Whitman remains astonishingly relevant — and the meaning of his work constantly contested.

Following in James’s footsteps, 36-year-old poet and novelist Ben Lerner recently leveled an updated and more unnerving critique of Whitman’s Civil War writings in his second novel, “10:04,” published to great and deserved acclaim last year. The narrator, a writer named Ben, spends most of his prestigious residency in Marfa, Texas, where he is supposed to be working on his second novel, staying up all night eating frozen burritos and reading “Specimen Days” instead. He returns over and over again to ”the most riveting and disturbing and particular passages” in the memoir, those in which Whitman relates his ministrations to the wounded soldiers.

“What disturbed me as I read was what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the delight he took in the willingness of young men to die for the union whose epic bard he felt he was destined to be, and his almost sensual pleasure in the material richness of the surrounding carnage,” the narrator observes. “From the distance of my residency late in the empire of drones, his love for the young boys on both sides whose blood was to refresh the tree of liberty was hard to take.”

While Ben later admits he has been too harsh on the author of “Specimen Days,” the critique maintains its bite. Was Whitman a militarist, committed to now-outmoded, romantic notions about the purifying nature of war, the epitome of a certain vision of masculinity that has done irreparable harm to this country and the world? Is the United States now so irreparably gone to pot that we should regret — and be discomforted by Whitman’s approval of — the sacrifices made a century and a half ago to glue it back together?

“10:04” only discusses “Specimen Days,” but there is much in “Drum-Taps” that adds force to those concerns.

“I chant the new empire, grander than any before,” Whitman announces at one point. “War, red war, is my song through your streets, O city!” at another. Early on he urges the cannons to “begin the red business” and commands his readers: “See the identity formed out of thirty-six spacious and haughty States, (and many more to come).” This comes shortly after one of Whitman’s famous rhetorical tours of the North American continent, in which, as Kramer astutely observes in a footnote, “geography is (manifest) destiny.”

Lerner’s narrator in “10:04” also spends a lot of his time in Marfa listening to a recording on YouTube, originally made by Thomas Edison, of Whitman reading from his 1888 poem, “America.” But he doesn’t mention that both that recording and an actor’s reading of “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” from “Drum-Taps” were featured in an award-winning Levi Strauss & Co. television advertising campaign a few years ago. One would hardly blame Whitman for this appropriation were it any more difficult than it is, while reading the latter poem — which implores American youth to seize pistols and axes and embark on a global campaign of marching through mountain passes, felling primeval forests, damming rivers, piercing the earth with mines, and upheaving virgin soil — to imagine a Levi’s ad executive reading along and whispering to herself, “Yes, yes, this will do just fine.”

The poet of “Drum-Taps” was not all we might now wish him to have been. But at the same time, the book’s republication for the first time in 150 years is an invitation to recognize anew that the America he sang about remains, for better and for worse, our own.

“Drum-Taps” was fresh in mind one day this winter as I absentmindedly looked at Twitter. Much of my feed in recent months had been concerned with shootings of unarmed black Americans by white police officers. On this day, my eye caught on one item in particular. Published by a feed I follow that sends out random lines from Whitman, it quoted his 1851 poem “Resurgemus,” a Latin word meaning “we will rise up again.” The tweet said: “Not a grave of the murdered for freedom but grows seed for freedom . . . in its turn to bear seed.”

Richard Kreitner is the archivist of the The Nation magazine, which in 2015 turns 150 years old.

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