Now The Drum Of War Hardcover – Oct 21 2008
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“…Robert Roper's Now the Drum of War does strive for something new. His subtitle is "Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War," and he offers up a fresh perspective: the bard as family man...Via letters and notebook entries, Now the Drum of War fills in important blanks; we end up with a sense of the individual as part of an impressive collective entity called Whitman.” ―Nicholas Delbanco, Washington Post Book World.
“In Now the Drum of War, Robert Roper captures this turning point in Whitman's life -- the transformation of his poetry but also the dramatic new chapter in the story of the Whitman family.” ―Daniel Mark Epstein, The Wall Street Journal.
“The amazingly productive Roper...has turned the white light of critical analysis on the great poet. The result is a portrait more fully human, more emphatically flesh and blood, and exponentially more interesting than the Currier & Ives manquè we had come to know.” ―Minneapolis Star Tribune
About the Author
Robert Roper has won awards for his fiction and nonfiction alike. His most recent book, Fatal Mountaineer, a biography of the American climber/philosopher, Willi Unsoeld, won the 2002 Boardman-Tasker Prize given by London's Royal Geographical Society. His works of fiction include Royo County, On Spider Creek, Mexico Days, The Trespassers, and Cuervo Tales, which was a New York Times Notable Book in. He has won prizes or grants from the NEA, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, the Joseph Henry Jackson Competition, and the British Alpine Club. His journalism appears in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Outside, Men's Journal, National Geographic, and others. He teaches at Johns Hopkins, and lives in Baltimore and California.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
- a Whitmanian in Florida, raised in Huntington
author has plumbed the sources (from the National Archives and
elsewhere) and come back with a story like none other, a scrupulous
history that reads with the vivid intensity of a major novel. The
descriptions of actual battles, in which George Whitman, the poet
Whitman's brother, fought, are alone worth the price of admission.
Roper is interested in many things, and one of them is the bond of
devotion that connected Walt to his six brothers. They were the sons
of a large, impoverished, severely afflicted Brooklyn family, several
of whose members were uncommonly brilliant. Roper brings the Great
Mother who presided over this clan into deep focus. Mrs. Whitman has
heretofore been known as an illiterate slum matron, churlish and
embarrassing; here, that distorted and condescending portrait
undergoes a wonderful correction.
The book is profoundly moving yet written with stoic reserve. Think
of early Hemingway; think of Stephen Crane. Whitman spent the war
years working as a nurse in the hospitals on the Union side; brother
George, meanwhile, was a line officer fighting for survival in some
of the most searing battles in our history. George's war
experiences, put into letters from the front, fed Walt's poetry, and
among other things this book is a clear-eyed reassessment of Walt's
poetic achievement. The only problem with NOW THE DRUM OF WAR is
that it eventually ends. Readers caught up in its intensely real
recreation of the Civil War and the writing of the great literature
of that war will find themselves doling out its final pages sparingly
-- to turn the last one was, in my experience, to feel bereft.
A sizeable library of books on Whitman has accumulated since his death in 1892. He continues to provide grist for the lit-crit mills and the doctoral thesis industry. For those curious about Whitman's life or just enthralled by his wide-ranging poetic flights, there is a lot out there.
Journalist, historian and fiction writer Robert Roper has taken a slightly different tack in NOW THE DRUM OF WAR. While concentrating on the poet's well-known service as a sort of unofficial visiting nurse in the military hospitals around Washington during the Civil War, he also places Whitman within his family situation --- his aging mother back in Brooklyn, his six siblings, his early careers as house builder and journalist, and his once glossed over but now openly acknowledged identity as an open homosexual.
Roper's book is not a straightaway biography. It virtually ignores Whitman's childhood and devotes almost as much attention to his heroic soldier-brother George as it does to Walt himself. It is grounded largely in family letters, in Walt's own personal notebooks and in reminiscences of those who knew him both at home and in the military hospitals and camps. Roper sees him as "the war's most knowledgeable noncombatant."
Walt Whitman initially went south to visit George after the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, just one of a long string of major battles in which George performed heroic service under hails of shot and shell, while sustaining only one relatively minor wound. Through acquaintances in Washington, Walt was able to find lodging and part-time government work that left him ample leisure to carry out his real mission of visiting the wounded laden with small articles, food items and words of comfort.
Roper makes clear that Whitman also saw these injured young men as raw material for his poetry. He gives us a goodly amount of analysis of the poems, showing how many of them reflect places Whitman had seen and men Whitman came to know in his hospital rounds. The author is candid too about the obvious sexual attraction that Whitman felt toward many of the soldiers he comforted.
His brother and his elderly mother were both uncomprehending of his poetic gifts, but both loved him and cared for him assiduously by letter. He was, says Roper, his family's father figure. George Whitman could not make heads or tails of LEAVES OF GRASS when that epoch-making collection of poems first appeared, and Mrs. Whitman compared her son's book ruefully with Longfellow --- well, if "Hiawatha" is poetry, I guess his is too.
Roper's mining of family letters and journals gives us a good idea of what life was like both at home and in the army camps during the war. Typical of Roper's lack of interest in standard biographical detail is his dismissal in one sentence of the famous incident when a minor government official got Whitman fired from his Washington job after finding and perusing a copy of LEAVES OF GRASS in Walt's office desk.
Roper's obvious interest in George also leads to a fair amount of discourse about Civil War battle strategies and campaign tactics. This is perhaps interesting up to a point, but it is easily available in quantity elsewhere and seems irrelevant to his book's main purpose. That complaint aside, NOW THE DRUM OF WAR provides a valuable portrait of Walt Whitman as both Civil War bard and family man. He was, as one hospital observer put it, "an odd-looking genius."
Happily, Roper retains the picturesque odd spellings and halting grammar of his original sources. But oddly, the book has no table of contents, and his 29 chapters bear no titles --- merely numbers.
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn
The family of Walt Whitman was large, with talented members intermixed with sad cases. Here the author, Robert Roper, provides information on the family--with a focus on brothers Walt, the poet, and George, the soldier, and their mother--during the Civil War.
Those interested in learning more about the writing career (and love life) of Walt Whitman; the state of hospital care for those suffering from battle wounds; or one American family's experiences during the Civil War period will enjoy this book.
A bibliography of all the books written about the American Civil War since its opening shots fired at Fort Sumter, would easily number in the hundreds of thousands. The Civil War is, by far and away, the most written about topic in American History, and though many have tried, with greater or lesser success, no one, not even those who lived through those four battle bloodied years, has been able to capture the horror of the "real war" in print as it was truly experienced by those who participated in it.
Robert Roper, in his book, "Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War," has pointedly circumnavigated Whitman's challenge to future historians by not writing a book specifically about the war. Rather than offering his readers a history of the Civil War, he has instead offered up a not only biography of Walt Whitman, but a biography of the whole Whitman family.
Walt Whitman came from a large, working-class family of Long Island, New York. He was the second of nine children born to Walter and Louisa (Van Velsor) Whitman, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Like many large families, some of the Whitman siblings remained but sad shadows in the light of their more talented and successful siblings. Though Mr. Roper concentrates on the more successful members of the family - Walt, the poet; George, the soldier; and Jeff, the engineer - his narrative does not neglect the lesser known individuals of the Whitman family. Additionally, the author brings a new interpretation of Whitman's mother, Louisa (Van Velsor) Whitman, the touchstone of the family correspondence, correcting the flawed portrait of a largely illiterate matriarch painted by previous Whitman scholars.
Mr. Roper begins his narrative of the Whitman family, nearly at the beginning with the family firmly established in the working class neighborhoods of Long Island. He follows the family who were constantly on the move, from building, living in, and selling house after house until finally coming to rest, more or less permanently in Brooklyn, and the outbreak of the Civil War.
Shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter, George Whitman enlisted in the 13th New York Militia, a three month regiment and left for the war. After his term of service expired he enlisted as a lieutenant in the 51st New York Infantry. He eventually rose to the rank of major in that regiment, and led his men through twenty-one major battles. He was wounded at Fredericksburg.
Two hours after reading George's name listed in a casualty list in the printed in the New York Herald, Walt packed a few clothes, withdrew $50 from his mother's bank account and headed south, first to Washington, D.C. and then on to Fredericksburg, where he found his younger brother only slightly wounded by a shell fragment that had pierced his cheek. Walt's visit with his with his wounded brother would prove to be that catalyst that changed his life.
Deeply moved by what he saw and experienced at Fredericksburg Walt determined to help where ever he could. Through acquaintances in Washington he was able to find a place to stay and a part-time government job when left him plenty of time to visit the hospitals around Washington, and care for those soldiers who have born the battle.
Walt was a frequent visitor to the hospitals around Washington, making as many as 600 visits. He brought the wounded and dying soldiers small gifts of paper, pens, stamps, fruit, candy and other various items he deemed would be helpful to those he cared for. He sat beside the beds of the wounded soldiers, and talked to them of their lives at home, read them their letters from family and friends, wrote letters for them, held their hands, consoled them, and watched them die. They served as inspiration for his poetry.
Mean while, Mrs. Whitman was home in Brooklyn, receiving letters from her two sons away, George writing from various battlefields, and Walt from Washington. Louisa served as the hub of the family correspondence, all the while caring for the other members of the Whitman family left behind.
It is in the interweaving of these three stories, George at the front, Walt in the Washington hospitals, and Louisa at home that Mr. Roper has excelled. The largely concentrating his focus on these three stories the author does not fail to write about the other members of the Whitman family, most notably, Jesse, the oldest, mentally unstable and violently deranged; Jeff, chief assistant of the Brooklyn Waterworks who purchased a substitute and avoided the draft; the drunk and dying Andrew, and the feebleminded youngest sibling Edward; though less attention has been paid to the Whitman sisters, Mary Elizabeth and Hannah. Using the voluminous correspondence between the members of this large family as well as the journals and notebooks of the poet himself, the author gives his readers not a glimpse of the minutia of war, but rather the larger picture of battles and battlefields, the dead, the wounded and dying, the hospitals and the lives of those left behind.
Mr. Roper also deserves deep praise for not shying away from the topic of Walt's homosexuality. Extrapolating from the poet's notebooks and lists of names, Mr. Roper concludes that Walt had an active and open sex life. Though, he most certainly did not sleep with every one listed in his notebooks, there was enough attraction to them for Whitman to make a note of their names, and so too with the boys in his care in the Washington hospitals.
"Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War," serves as an excellent companion to Whitman's poetry. A journalist, historian and fiction writer, Mr. Roper provides his readers with the information to more properly put Whitman's poetry into the context of its time; placing it against his personal life, the lives of his family and momentous events of the Civil War.
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