Whitman and the Civil War
Neely, Mark E., Jr., Michigan Quarterly Review
A Response to Helen Vendler
Professor Vendler's illuminating lecture underlines the importance of the Civil War period in Walt Whitman's life. In this respect, her paper follows the mainstream of critical and biographical literature on Whitman, which gives us the impression that the Civil War was a turning point of some sort for Whitman. There are at least two books on the subject of Whitman and the Civil War and at least one whole book on the subject of Lincoln and Whitman.' The sketch of Whitman in the Dictionary of American Biography, written by Mark Van Doren, summarizes the conclusions of many critics in saying, "The importance of the Civil War in Whitman's life was incalculable. "2
The war's importance may have been incalculable, but it is the business of history to calculate the importance of events in people's lives. George M. Fredrickson, for example, attempted the calculation in what remains the standard intellectual history of the Civil War, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union, published in 1965, and I want to build on that beginning here but take it to a different conclusion from Fredrickson's.3
Professor Vendler has convinced me that the poetry on the Lincoln theme is important for what it says about Whitman, but I am not as persuaded in terms of what the poetry says about Lincoln. Or rather, what Whitman thought about Lincoln is important as an indication of the direction of some currents of thinking in America, but was in fact dead wrong in the image of Lincoln it created. And therefore I am somewhat less enthusiastic about Walt Whitman's image of Abraham Lincoln.
Let me attempt here to say what a political historian would point to as decisive in the Civil War's effects on Whitman. In fact, it did three things. First, the war solved his problem of vocation. Second, the war radically altered Whitman's lifestyle. Third, the Civil War changed his mind about liberty and authority.
It has gone largely unnoticed in the literature on Whitman that the Civil War solved his lifelong crisis of vocation-at least for a decade and more.
Whitman's problem was that he knew he should be a poet but he was poor and could not get paid to write poetry.4 There were no writers in residence at universities, no creative writing classes to teach, and no summer writers' colonies at Yaddo in Whitman's day.
What he could do was to use his facility with words in another line of work: newspapers. I use the term "newspapers" and not 'Journalism" advisedly, for there was essentially no journalism in Whitman's era. There was only politics, and newspapers were a branch of politics. They existed mainly to promote the fortunes of one political party and to vilify all other political parties. A visit to a mid-century newspaper office would find only pressmen and editors. There were usually no reporters employed to bring in news; news came from large metropolitan dailies, and the editors clipped it for their local readers. Newspapermen saw to it that the type got set, and then they got down to the real business of journalism at the time: they wrote a half-pageful of editorials for each issue, glorifying one political party and heaping abuse on all others. That is what Whitman did for a living.5
It left indelible marks on him: he was, for example, a dedicated, steady, and reliable voter. I noticed that during the Civil War, even when he worked in Washington, he managed to be home in Brooklyn to vote.6 He noted election day in his diaries or letters.
Whitman's interest in voting, incidentally, was typical of American white men in the era, over 75% of whom voted each time there was a presidential election. Long schooling in political conflict also left Whitman interested in political questions, but not interested enough to give up on his dream of being a poet. He would remain a consistent voter interested in politics, but the Civil War would change his vocation. …