Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Memoranda During the War [1875-1876]
Author:
Davis, Robert Leigh
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"My idea is a book of the time, worthy the time" (Correspondence 1:171), Whitman wrote to the Boston publisher James Redpath in October 1863, proposing a Civil War narrative he planned to title "Memoranda of a Year." Redpath turned down the offer and Whitman's Civil War autobiography would be another ten years in the making. In 1874 Whitman published a version of his original project, now entitled "'Tis But Ten Years Since," in six articles for the New York Weekly Graphic. A year later he collected and republished the Weekly Graphic articles as Memoranda During the War in a private printing of less than one hundred copies. In 1876 Whitman republished Memoranda During the War as a section of Two Rivulets, the second volume of the Centennial edition of his work, and then again as a section of Specimen Days & Collect (1882).

Much had happened in the ten years since the war. Published three years after the Credit Mobilier scandal of the Grant administration, two years after the "salary grab" of 1873, and in the midst of the worst economic depression in American history, Memoranda During the War is indeed "a book of the time," as Whitman knew. But it is a book as implicated in the cultural contexts of the Gilded Age as in the Civil War itself. The America emerging from the ashes of war frankly baffled the poet. Whitman's dream of a democratic republic of free labor was overwhelmed by the emergence of an industrialized power-state, what he called the "leviathan" of postwar America. That America, in Whitman's eyes, was despotic, stratified, hypocritical and corrupt—even less committed to the possibilities of popular democracy, even less interested in the destiny of the common people than American culture before the war. The nation had become a huge body, Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas (1871), "with little or no soul" (Prose Works 2:370).

Memoranda responds to that diminishment. As Betsy Erkkila argues in Whitman the Political Poet, the book is an anthology of republican virtue, a case study of democratic idealism implicitly attacking the business ethos of the Gilded Age. The central issue in Memoranda is not politics but character. Whitman is largely silent on the major public issues of the era: slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, suffrage. Mythologizing the war as a demonstration of what he terms "the latent Personal Character and eligibilities of These States" (Memoranda 4), Whitman subordinates political issues to brief, intimate portraits of common courage and self-sacrifice. He has little to say about battles, generals, tactics or turning-points. His heroes are not Grant and Lee, but Calvin Harlowe and Thomas Haley. And his focus is almost exclusively on the suffering of common soldiers. His titles signal that emphasis: "Two Brooklyn Boys," "A New York Soldier," "A Secesh Brave," "Bad Wounds, the Young." Facing a spectacle of postwar greed and political scandal, Whitman returns to the hospitals and battlefields of the Civil War with a sense almost of relief. There he finds the latent character of the American people—in a Massachusetts soldier returning from Andersonville, in an Armory Square nurse sitting at the bedside of a dying patient, in a middle-aged Southerner comforting the wounded at Chancellorsville.

This is the "interior history" of Whitman's Civil War, the "soul" bargained away by Gilded Age America. Whitman summons that soul in the pages of his text. "They summon up," he begins, "even in this silent and vacant room as I write, not only the sinewy regiments and brigades, marching or in camp, but the countless phantoms of those who fell . . ." (Memoranda 3). If the Memoranda is a jeremiad in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, it is also a kind of romance. Like Hawthorne and Poe, Whitman resurrects the dead. He stirs the ghosts of a recent past—tis but ten years since—and restores the reality of past suffering to a postwar America all too willing to forget. The Civil War hospital is Whitman's House of Pain, his House of the Seven Gables, and he conjures the phantoms of the dead to connect the present age to the living history of its own war, a war "in danger," Whitman feared, "of being totally forgotten" (Memoranda 5).

Bibliography 

Aaron, Daniel. The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War. 1973. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Sweet, Timothy. Traces of War: Poetry, Photography, and the Crisis of the Union. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987. 

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Memoranda During the War & Death of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.