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This fascinating study examines the relationship between Walt Whitman and his family, refuting the popular notion of the poet as wandering through the world alone. Through extensive use of Whitman family letters and Whitman’s own notebook entries, journalist Robert Roper fleshes out the familial ties of “the great gray poet” previously unknown to most readers, showing how both his family and his experiences during the Civil War helped shape his development as a poet.
Whitman’s mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, played a key role in maintaining the family bonds. After her husband’s death in 1855, her many sons, especially Walt, supported her, and kept in close contact with her through their many letters home. Her own, often daily correspondence with her children, discussing George’s battles and Walt’s work as a printer and newspaper editor, as well as her more mundane domestic matters demonstrates that, contrary to the opinion of many Whitman scholars, she understood and appreciated a wide range of experiences.
Whitman undoubtedly inherited this ability from his mother, which allowed him to interact with and befriend men from all walks of life, as well as to write about them with compassion and understanding. Indeed, Walt seems to have been most attracted to young, working-class men, similar to his own background. Throughout his life, he kept various lists of men’s names, sometimes followed by a brief description. And of course, his poetry is full of sensuous descriptions of male beauty, along with whispers of illicit deeds and suppressed longings.
While it’s impossible to fully know whether any of his relationships with men were ever sexual, Whitman formed deep, intimate friendships with many of the men he encountered; whether they were physically consummated or if Walt even considered that option is almost irrelevant.
Whitman gained a great deal from reading about his brother’s military campaigns; in fact, some of the phrases and imagery he used in his poetry to describe battles came directly from George’s letters. Although Walt was a nurse to injured soldiers and witnessed the horrors of war in a way few other writers ever have, because he never saw a battle in progress, he needed George’s actual experiences of war to accurately write about it.
Indeed, according to Roper, even though Walt wrote about the Civil War at a time when few other writers discussed it, there were limits to what he could describe. He was unable to represent the complicated emotions of the soldiers: the feeling that they were throwing away their lives for nothing; their refusal to quietly and stoically endure their often painful, disfiguring injuries, especially from the amputations they underwent to save their lives; and their often racist attitudes towards African-Americans, both slave and free.
Looking at his poetry, Roper notices that Walt never lets the soldiers speak for themselves; the narrator always interprets for them, showing them as courageous heroes, fighting and willingly sacrificing their lives for a worthy, noble cause. Despite the loving attention he paid while nursing the injured troops, including writing letters to them and speaking about them to their families, he was still unwilling to face the messy truths of war.
The Whitman family suffered their share of difficulties over the years. George was taken captive and held in a Confederate prison, where he nearly died from the brutal conditions. Edward, the youngest son, was born physically and mentally disabled and required special care. Another son, Jesse, suffered a mental breakdown and had to be institutionalized for life.
In spite of these challenges, their support for each other never wavered. This unconditional love and support allowed the remaining sons, including Walt, to pursue their dreams and achieve success.
Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War
By Robert Roper
Walker & Company
Paperback, $18.00, 421 p