Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Walt Whitman and the Wounded and the Brave

It's not OK, I don't think, for me to be satisfied with my understanding of myself as anti-war and anti-militarist. Not if it blinds me to soldiers who serve, whatever the motivation for their service. Overall, I think of soldiers as the toys of generals, of elites. But Walt Whitman didn't see it that way.

In December 1862, he left his New Jersey home after reading a report that his brother George had been wounded. Later that month Walt found George in a camp hospital in Virginia. He stayed with his brother, who had suffered a facial wound, until he recovered. Afterward, Walt traveled to Washington, where he found a part-time job, which allowed him to spend a great deal more time visiting the wounded and the dying, Yankee and Confederate, in the hospitals around the city.

In a short book, Walt Whitman and Words for America, I read the edited text of a letter he wrote to the parents of a young soldier who had died while Whitman sat at his bedside.

Washington, August 10, 1863

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Haskell,

...I thought it would be soothing to you to have a few lines about the last days of your son Erastus...Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside till far into the night--The lights would be put out--yet I would sit there silently, hours, late, perhaps fanning him--he always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk--I shall never forget those nights...

I write to you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory...He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land...

Mr. and Mrs. Haskell...though we are strangers & shall probably never see each other, I send love--

Walt Whitman

How absolutely empathic, sweet, warm and clear-eyed Whitman was. Because of Whitman we know, now and forever, that Erastus Haskell lived and died. And we can imagine that this letter was a comfort to those Haskells. They would know that the man who wrote it was a mentsch. They might also have known that Whitman was a great poet, already America's poet, and that he had taken the time to sit with Erastus and to write them because it was important to do so.

Later, in O Captain! My Captain! Whitman would eulogize Lincoln as the man who had saved the union and as the man Whitman had "come to love personally," the man whose "face and manner are inexpressibly sweet."

The last few times I got a chance to work on poetry with kids I've relied primarily on two tools to break the ice, the poem The Unwritten by W.S. Merwin, and these lines from Whitman:

"Whoever you are,
now I place my hand upon you
that you be my poem."

I think we each have a chance to understand this country a little better because Walt Whitman came before us and loved America and Americans so well. He wouldn't have let a little thing like disdain for generals blind him to the humanity of the people who served under their command. I'm afraid I do.

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