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Reynolds, we meet again.

Reading Reynolds made me consider a side of Whitman I had not really looked at before, Whitman the Patriot. I knew he was a patriot, and I realized that he thought America was the greatest place on earth (he hadn’t had a chance to go to Disney World yet) but i hadn’t really considered the implications of that.

Whitman was very much a Unionist, he wouldn’t, and couldn’t, abide a country that was not unified. Not because he thought the south deserved to subjugated to northern law or anything so dramatic, rather he simply felt that America could never reach its potential unless it was brought together as one country. Reynolds speaks of Whitman as one of many who was glorifying the war, writing about it as chance for great change. From my readings though I have trouble finding this Whitman, the Whitman whose eyes glittered whenever a bomb dropped or another soldier marched out to battle. Recognizing Whitman as a patriot though, I realize this must have been, to an extent, how he felt. The war was a chance for glory, for honor, a chance to defend the country. Because of this Whitman would have felt it was something glorious, but his writings suggest a different tone.

It was difficult to find a way to reconcile these two understandings of Whitman in my mind, the Whitman that I read, the tender, caring, empathetic Whitman, with the war-loving, battle frenzied Whitman Reynolds speaks of. The only way I’ve been able to do this was to go back and consider Whitman’s original goals, all the way back in 1855 Song of Myself.

Back then, Whitman was an idealist. He wanted everyone to hold hands, sing kumbaya, and revel in some nature. As the war approached though, the country was strained. It had been at odds with itself for a long time before the actual fighting started and everyone knew. Whitman, I’m sure, saw the country falling apart and knew he had to readdress his understanding of how America would reach this state of utopia he so wanted. This is where, I think, the war-loving Whitman came in. Whitman saw the war as a chance to break the tension that had been building. At this point he still saw death as part of the renewal cycle of life, not as something venomous so he wasn’t as concerned with dying soldiers as he might have been. As the war went on however Whitman got much closer to death and saw the toll the war was taking on the men of the country he loved so well (Not in a gay way though, just in a completely normal, culturally acceptable, homoerotic way). This is where the tender, empathetic Whitman I’ve been reading comes in.

Although he still saw the war as a chance to reunite the nation, now it seems to be more of a obligation than an honor. It seems to me that Whitman, at this point, no longer thought of war as the best answer, but rather as the current answer. Rather than seeing the soldiers as the men who would change the world through battle, he saw them as the men who were changing the world through sacrifice, a sacrifice that would have been unnecessary had  peopl eonly heeded his words back in 1855.

So to an extent I believe Whitman was glorifying war, but only at first. As he progressed he lost the battle-fever that has swept the country and was left only with a need to care for those who fought so bravely for the land he loved.

~ by bcbottle on October 4, 2009.


3 Responses to “Reynolds, we meet again.”

  1. It was difficult for me also to see the war fanatic side of Whitman that Reynolds alludes to. Rather, I saw a more reflective Whitman, who through the Civil War, realized that life is not as simple as it was when he wrote 1855 Leaves of Grass. Yet, at the same time Whitman accepts the horrors that had to occur in order for the nation to develop, and this is where the optimistic side of Whitman begins to take over. After reading these poems and seeing Whitman change over the years, I think we should all remember that Whitman was human after all, and doesn’t everyone mentally change as we get older and experience different situations. So, it is no wonder that Whitman’s poetry began to reflect a different viewpoint on both life and death.

  2. Your second to last paragraph– perfectly, succinctly put. I particularly agree with your point about Whitman’s perspective on the sacrifice of the soldiers. He voices this quite plainly in “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” when he says the face of the dead young soldier is the face of “Christ himself.” Whitman was obviously not an actual prophet (no matter how much he might protest), but I do think he did have profound wisdom, patience, and a sense of “the big picture.” Whitman saw the war as a solution, though not necessarily the best solution, to the problems America was facing; no matter the situation, no matter how sad the scene, Whitman always seems to instill a little bit of hope into his “Drum Tap” poems.

  3. Someone’s blogging, Lord, kumbaya….

    Some pts:
    I think Whitman is a real prophet. It’s better than alien.

    Your post title (I honestly love that week after week you buck the assigned title for the weekly post, Whitmanic rebel) made me expect more of a rumble, but I appreciated your snide parenthetical aside.

    I started wondering how we would read the Civil War Whitman if we read Drum-Taps before the stuff of the last two weeks. Those first poems of the book seem stupidly bloodthirsty and propogandistic to me (though as you say oddly both pro-war and non-partisan–what?), though I feel the volume shifts perceptibly and begins to admit loss and grief as it goes. And loss/grief is what those of us who love the tender Whitman (in an absolutely appropriate, common, nonsexual way) were reading for, because we already read “This Compost” and Memoranda….

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