For nearly three years, Walt Whitman immersed himself in the devastation of the Civil War, tending to thousands of wounded soldiers and recording his experiences with an immediacy and compassion unequaled in wartime literature anywhere in the world.
In The Better Angel , acclaimed biographer Roy Morris, Jr. gives us the fullest account of Whitman's profoundly transformative Civil War years and an historically invaluable examination of the Union's treatment of its sick and wounded. Whitman was mired in depression as the war began, subsisting on journalistic hackwork, his "great career" as a poet apparently stalled. But when news came that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman rushed south to find him. Deeply affected by his first view of the war's casualties, he began visiting the camp's wounded and found his calling for the duration of the war. Three years later, he emerged as the war's "most unlikely hero," a living symbol of American democratic ideals of sharing and brotherhood.
Brilliantly researched and beautifully written, The Better Angel explores a side of Whitman not fully examined before, one that greatly enriches our understanding of his later poetry. Moreover, it gives us a vivid and unforgettable portrait of the "other army"--the legions of sick and wounded soldiers who are usually left in the shadowy background of Civil War history--seen here through the unflinching eyes of America's greatest poet.
Since the 1980sAwhen scholars such as Michael Moon and Robert K. Martin reinvigorated Walt Whitman scholarship by queering itAthe poet has inspired something of a literary cottage industry. Now Morris takes Whitman scholarship in a captivating new direction. In this study, the first complete account of the poet's Civil War years, Morris (Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company) shows how the War Between the States changed Whitman as a man and a poet. Indeed, in Morris's rendering, Whitman becomes a kind of metaphor for the country itself, a nearly transcendental signifier of American-style democracy and sexual freedom (though he was rather more ambivalent concerning the place of the "African" in American society). Whitman was, the author argues, depressed and adrift in New York's bohemia before the war; suffering from writer's block regarding his poetry, he occupied himself with journalistic hackwork. But when his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman found a cause that revived his sense of purpose: he spent three years visiting tens of thousands of wounded soldiers in and around Washington, D.C.Aand by the end of the war, he had become "the good gray poet," a larger-than-life figure Morris calls "almost mystical." The war, as Whitman himself acknowledged, "saved" him. His wartime experience inspired some of his best work, including the masterpiece "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." The postwar years also engendered a deep despair, however. Fearful that the nation had forgotten its soldiers in the heady days of the Gilded Age, the poet attacked "the post-war climate of graft and malaise." However despondent, Whitman produced important writing after the dust had cleared. The Better Angel enriches our understanding of his subsequent life and work. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Oxford University Press, Incorporated
October 19, 2001
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