Whitman and the Civil War

By Neely, Mark E., Jr. | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Whitman and the Civil War
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.