Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Reconstruction
Author:
Mancuso, Luke
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In many ways, the Reconstruction years (1863–1877) were a time of disruption for Walt Whitman. As the United States came apart in civil war, and then sought to recompose its Union ideology, so Whitman experienced the war and its aftermath with disquieting intensity. Reconstruction America became activated for Whitman in December 1862, when the poet journeyed to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in order to find his wounded brother, George, after notice that his sibling had been injured in battle. Rather than return home to Brooklyn, Whitman relocated to the nation's hub, Washington, D.C., and thus inaugurated his first geographical displacement from New York, which would last until he suffered a debilitating stroke in January 1873. Whitman supported himself (and to some extent his mother) first as a part-time clerk in the Army Paymaster's Office (1863–1865), then as a clerk in the Department of the Interior (1865), and finally as a clerk in the Attorney General's Office (1865–1873). Aside from his desultory schedule as a government employee, Whitman's consuming passion remained his visits to Civil War hospitals, where he visited and consoled up to 100,000 veterans from all corners of the United States.

Whitman widened his circle of friends, meeting Peter Doyle, his closest personal friend who was a streetcar conductor and former Confederate soldier, as well as William Douglas O'Connor, his literary companion who published the first Whitman biography, The Good Gray Poet (1866). A year later, American naturalist John Burroughs published the second Whitman biography, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867), and William Michael Rossetti attracted British readers to Whitman's work by a laudatory notice in July 1867 in the London Chronicle. When Rossetti published an expurgated English edition of Whitman in 1868, called simply Poems, Mrs. Anne Gilchrist fell in love with the poet, began a series of love letters in 1871, and actually moved to Philadelphia in 1876 in order to be near the poet. Whitman also encountered resistance to his poetic reputation, most notably in his firing from the Secretary of the Interior's Office by Senator James Harlan in 1865, on the grounds that he was the author of the notoriously frank Leaves of Grass. Shortly after Whitman's first major stroke in 1873, his mother passed away, and the poet was forced to leave Washington, D.C., for the confines of his brother George's home in Camden, New Jersey. Thus, after initiating Reconstruction in search of his brother George, Whitman ends the Reconstruction decade as a convalescent with his brother George.

Aside from geographical displacement, the Reconstruction years were constituted by a prolific outpouring of editorial and creative work. Critics have largely ignored this pivotal period in Whitman's long career, outside of biographical and bibliographical notices, but the direction of Whitman's work splinters across eight major publications: Drum-Taps (1865), Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), Leaves of Grass (1867 edition), Democratic Vistas (1871), Leaves of Grass (1871–1872 edition), Memoranda During the War (1875–1876), and the Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass and Two Rivulets (1876). There are two significant points about such a dispersion of his creative output. First, the previous organic unity of Leaves gives way to a fracturing of his major work into multiple annexes appended to Leaves along the way: Drum-Taps, Sequel, Songs Before Parting in 1867; Passage to India and After All, Not to Create Only, or later "Song of the Exposition," in 1871–1872; and the gathering of all his major Reconstruction statements into Two Rivulets in 1876. Second, Whitman makes a bid as a serious prose writer in such essays as Democratic Vistas and Memoranda During the War, in which the poet both looks forward to the evolution of American democracy and backward to the Civil War as the impetus for the growth of American promise. This intriguing middle period of Whitman's poetic career has been hastily passed over by critics, who have reinforced the notion that after the Civil War, Whitman's output indicates a period of decline following his spectacular debut as an antebellum genius. Whitman himself assisted such a dismissal, when he decreed that the final arrangement of Leaves (1881) should guide the readers of the future. Though recently critics have recovered the 1855 Leaves, the 1860 Leaves, Drum-Taps, Democratic Vistas, and even Memoranda During the War, the gap has yet to be bridged across his other Reconstruction publications as artifacts worthy of attention in their own right.

The improvisational nature of many of these arrangements of texts can be analyzed across the discourses afloat in the Reconstruction years, as the Union sought to replace the secession years with the consolidation of national interests over against regional and sectional differences. Even in their physical manifestations, Whitman's editions were broken into "sectional" pieces, seeking coherence in their shuffling of older and newer compositions with each appearance. In the 1872 Preface to As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free, Whitman makes a proposal to accompany Leaves, which he called the book of the " Democratic Individual," with a companion volume which would fulfill nationalist aspirations (the book of " Democratic Nationality "). While Whitman's assertion is hesitant, the poet persists in his prospectus for such a centralizing volume. In fact, Whitman delivered the volume Two Rivulets to accompany the 1876 Leaves, and the former comes closest to representing any book of "democratic nationality" as Whitman ever produced. In Two Rivulets, Whitman gathered together most of his major Reconstruction documents (including Passage to India, Democratic Vistas, and Memoranda During the War) in a strategy that can be read as either a haphazard or deliberate alignment of centralizing statements to be used for national purposes. 

The disruption of America's governmental structure by the Civil War created a divide between the localized understandings of regional identity before the war and the hegemony of federal authority asserting a national identity after the war. The reconstructive energies of postwar culture lurched forward during the Reconstruction years, not least in the coercive domination of the Republican North over against the resistance of the unreconstructed South. In the legislative workshop of Washington, civil and political rights for ex-slaves were grudgingly affirmed from 1865 to 1870 through such landmark statutes as the Civil War amendments to the Constitution: the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which abolished slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), which recognized African-American citizenship; and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which granted suffrage to African-American males. Such Constitutional reform provoked widespread resistance, and required federal surveillance of state jurisdictions on a scale that was not equalled until the 1950s and 1960s. Whitman's Reconstruction texts continually collapse federal-state frictions in favor of cooperative alliances between the two jurisdictional forums, but they also place a greater rhetorical weight on centralization through their deployment of nationalist images. As the representative poet, Whitman legislates unlimited promise for the national identity knitting together in the turbulent postwar years, while recognizing the continual dangers inherent in representative democracy. By 1876, just as Radical Reconstruction was breaking apart under the forces of racist violence and segregation, Whitman nonetheless issued Two Rivulets as a summa of his Reconstruction projects. This underrated volume is dominated by images of a radical democracy that seeks to dismantle discrimination in all its forms, through the implementation of a nationality that promotes localized social barriers giving way to the federated identity of cooperative citizens. The Reconstruction Whitman remains the Whitman who has yet to be fully scrutinized by Whitman scholars and readers alike.

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

____. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 

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

Mancuso, Luke. "'The Strange Sad War Revolving': Reconstituting Walt Whitman's Reconstruction Texts in the Legislative Workshop, 1865–1876." Diss. U of Iowa, 1994.


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