The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War Hardcover – Jun 15 2000
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From Publishers Weekly
Since the 1980sAwhen scholars such as Michael Moon and Robert K. Martin reinvigorated Walt Whitman scholarship by queering itAthe poet has inspired something of a literary cottage industry. Now Morris takes Whitman scholarship in a captivating new direction. In this study, the first complete account of the poet's Civil War years, Morris (Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company) shows how the War Between the States changed Whitman as a man and a poet. Indeed, in Morris's rendering, Whitman becomes a kind of metaphor for the country itself, a nearly transcendental signifier of American-style democracy and sexual freedom (though he was rather more ambivalent concerning the place of the "African" in American society). Whitman was, the author argues, depressed and adrift in New York's bohemia before the war; suffering from writer's block regarding his poetry, he occupied himself with journalistic hackwork. But when his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman found a cause that revived his sense of purpose: he spent three years visiting tens of thousands of wounded soldiers in and around Washington, D.C.Aand by the end of the war, he had become "the good gray poet," a larger-than-life figure Morris calls "almost mystical." The war, as Whitman himself acknowledged, "saved" him. His wartime experience inspired some of his best work, including the masterpiece "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." The postwar years also engendered a deep despair, however. Fearful that the nation had forgotten its soldiers in the heady days of the Gilded Age, the poet attacked "the post-war climate of graft and malaise." However despondent, Whitman produced important writing after the dust had cleared. The Better Angel enriches our understanding of his subsequent life and work. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From School Library Journal
YA-Morris notes in his introduction that Whitman, no stranger to the practice of using precise vocabulary, claimed he was "saved" by the Civil War. The author explains his subject's salvation by tracing the effects of crisis and suffering on one man's spirit and artistry. Since this was also the man who articulated America's voice in his groundbreaking Leaves of Grass, Whitman's evolution personified that of the country he celebrated and loved. In 1860, the poet was feeling cynical and unfocused, mired in a "New York [s]tagnation." Then, following the bloody battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, word reached the Whitmans that Walt's brother had been wounded. Walt immediately left Brooklyn for Virginia, beginning the journey that would define the remainder of his life. While George's injury was slight, Walt's experiences with the Union's sick and wounded both revitalized and seasoned him. For the next several years this "great mothering sort of man," bearing small gifts and treats, comradeship and compassion, became a fixture in soldiers' hospitals. Morris's skills as a researcher are evident and his writing is first rate. Teens can read Better Angel as a moving introduction to Whitman, for its information on the home front and the medical profession during the Civil War, or to gain insight into the sociological and psychological aftermath of war on individuals or nations.
Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top Customer Reviews
Although Whitman himself never took up arms, he experienced the brunt of combat both first-hand, through his trips to the frontlines (to seek out his brother), and--more horrifically in many ways--through his kindly visits to wounded and dying soldiers. He patiently spent hours every day, volunteering wherever he was welcome, bringing gifts and sweets and writing letters home for the incapacitated. His vigils often lasted until the boys' deaths, and he would send emotional, plaintive letters to their parents. There can be no doubt that his attentions were appreciated; many veterans wrote to him for the rest of their lives, addressing him as "Father" or "Uncle," and several named their sons after him.
Although most of his benevolence was altruistic, there can also be little doubt that a few of the relationships "seems to have exceeded mere wartime camaraderie," as Morris phrases it. Before he fell in love with the Confederate deserter Peter Doyle in 1865, Whitman formed intimate (though not necessarily sexual) associations with many of his patients. At their extremes, the aftermaths of these friendships left him desolate and jealous.Read more ›
The first chapter gives some background and tells of Whitman's despair, wasting his time, his life in New York's seedy underground bohemian world, especially Pfaff's beer cellar. At 41, Whitman had lost his job as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times newspaper, and was in a depressing downward spiral, doing only sporadic hack work as a journalist. The Civil War had begun and his brother George had enlisted. When reports reached New York that George was wounded and in a Washington, DC hospital, Walt rushed to be by his brother's side. It was this event that brought Whitman face-to-face with the terrible wartime hospitals and to his beloved dying soldiers. This was the event that turned his life around, even perhaps saved his life as Whitman himself later reported.
Finding that his brother's wounds were slight, Whitman began visiting the battlefield wounded. Here he almost by accident found his calling as the "Better Angel" of the book's title: helping the soldiers, or sometimes just listening and comforting his boys with small gifts and favors. Whitman clearly loved the young soldiers he watched die miserable deaths in the dreadful hospitals. The soldiers clearly loved him in return. This book is written with such sympathy that the reader can feel the love leap of the pages.
Whitman was a prolific letter writer. Much of the story recounted here comes from letters he wrote, especially to his beloved mother.Read more ›
Morris's book begins with Whitman in New York City at the outbreak of the War with the poet living a rootless, somewhat purposeless life focused on the bohemian taverns of New York City. With the thought that his brother George might be wounded at the battle of Fredricksburg, Whitman visits the site, views the carnage of the War, and returns changed.
The book details how Whitman works as a nurse in Washington D.C. visiting and tending the sick and wounded. There are graphic descriptions of Civil War Era illnesses and wounds and of the relatively primitive state of American medicine for treating the endless ranks of the sick and wounded.
Whitman made the rounds of the hospitals, brought cheer and comfort to the sick, wrote letters for them home and made them small gifts of food, tobacco, and necessaries. He received the gratitude of many a young man and his family. Morris establishes the distinguished character of Whitman's war service.
In some instances, Whitman became emotionally and perhaps homoerotically attached to the young men in his charge. Morris's descriptions of these relationships are models of restraint and judgment.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
This is a beautiful little book, informative, elegantly written, and quite moving. It reminded me that serving one's country can take many forms. Read morePublished on Jan. 4 2001 by C. Kevin Smith
Roy Morris has done a really outstanding job in this narrative of Walt Whitman's life during the war years. Read morePublished on Nov. 22 2000 by D. Williams
The magnificent Civil War-era poet Walt Whitman is well served by this fascinating study by Roy Morris, Jr., of Whitman's experiences during the war. Read morePublished on Sept. 20 2000 by Steven S. Berizzi
I have not read a great deal of Whitman's work(Leaves Of Grass being the exception) however I was so impressed with his observations as recorded here that I intend to dive in. Read morePublished on Aug. 19 2000 by R. J. Marsella
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