Whitman War Memoir Poignantly Relevant Today, Says Professor
Story posted January 31, 2005
Associate Professor of English Peter Coviello found himself in a curious position at the start of the war in Iraq. He was in Washington, D.C., researching Walt Whitman's memoir of the Civil War, Memoranda During the War, which the poet laureate wrote while visiting the bedsides of wounded soldiers from 1863-65.
"It was a uniquely awful, terrible time to be in Washington," says Coviello. "There were signs for Freedom Fries everywhere, and there I was in the Library of Congress... watching [Whitman] labor in this book to sustain his faith in the better possibilities of American national life in the face of a moment that seemed to so totally rebuke it. A heart-splitting moment."
The result of Coviello's labors is a newly released edition of Whitman's Memoranda published by the Oxford University Press (2004), which sheds new light on the poet's battle to reconcile his once-unshakeable faith in the possibilities of American life with the horrors of war.
Whitman penned his observations from his arrival on the front in 1862, through the war's conclusion in 1865. He had come to the war front in search of his brother, whose name he read on a casualty list. After finding his brother wounded, but recovering, Whitman dedicated himself to ministering to wounded and dying soldiers in field hospitals in and around Washington. Though he had no formal hospital role, Whitman tried to bring the men human comforts - holding their hands, reading to them, writing letters home, and bringing them gifts.
Whitman's diaries describe in delicate and often tender prose, his exchanges with soldiers and doctors, anecdotes of battle, last words, and a horrifying amalgam of suffering and death. Gone is the expansive optimism of Leaves of Grass in which Whitman articulates the hopeful purpose of the nation. Whitman's wartime prose is, he writes, "for myself alone," an accounting of war that can only approximate its reality. "Its interior history will not only never be written ... [but]will never be even suggested."
"It's a poignant admission that the war is beyond anyone's capacity to tell," says Coviello. "The Whitman who is writing this is much more disheartened and despairing than the exuberant poet of only a few years before, and yet you see him unwilling wholly to surrender that former idea, even in the face of the cataclysm of the war. He can't pledge his affection to the nation in the endlessly circulating way that he hoped his book would, but he'll do it by himself, bed by bed. He resolves to circulate in person through these grizzly dangerous places."
Whitman self-published roughly 100 copies of the slim volume in 1876 - importantly, the year of the Centennial - and it has since appeared in numerous publications, often folded into other editions of his works. Coviello says he wanted to work on a new edition of the book in which he might frame out Whitman's memoirs as staging "the simultaneous demolition and replenishment of his vision of American coherence," which he does cogently in the book's introduction.
The poet's light illuminates history with intimate detail, yet he presents himself as a largely unobtrusive observer. His description of the Death of a Wisconsin Officer:
Notice that water-pail by the side of the bed, with a quantity of blood and bloody pieces of muslin-nearly full; that tells the story. The poor young man is lying panting, struggling painfully for breath, his great dark eyes with a glaze already upon them. ...An attendant sits by him, and will not leave him till the last; yet little or nothing can be done. He will die here in an hour or two without the presence of kith or kin. Meantime the ordinary chat and business of the Ward a little way off goes on indifferently.
Though the works are indispensable as historical artifacts, the significance of this edition is Coviello's astute analysis of Whitman, the writer and the man, within his social context. "The only way to figure out the relation of an author to that author's moment is to understand the written work in the grain of its specificity," he says. "It means attending to language in its smallest collections."
In his introduction, Coviello describes Whitman's "use of a chastened idiom and a quieted self-presence to better allow the events of the war, even the most grisly or horrific, to speak for themselves. This restraint ... points to a kind of humility - a recalibration of strategies in the face of a task so daunting - that is for Whitman uncharacteristic enough to be surprising and, at moments, singularly moving."
Coviello also points out Whitman's abiding fascination with President Lincoln, whom he often encountered on the streets of Washington and about whom he writes: "I see very plainly ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes, &c., always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we always exchange bows, and very cordial ones."
As Whitman continues, says Coviello, his prose concerning the President takes on a more private, intimate nature. "I never see that man without feeling that he is one to become personally attach'd to, for his combination of purest, heartiest tenderness, and native western form of manliness," wrote Whitman under the heading of "The Inauguration."
In Lincoln, argues Coviello, Whitman sees the "man who represents all citizens, and who as President embodies their nationness .... In this weird, quasi-intimacy with Lincoln, Whitman looks to redeem the attachments blocked or forestalled by the unassimilable carnage of the war."
Perhaps because of its timely reflections, Coviello's edited edition of Memoranda During the War seems to be capturing public attention. In recent months, Coviello has spoken at Harvard, and on the NPR program "The Connection." He has been invited to lecture this spring at Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Williams College and the University of Connecticut. He will give the keynote address at a National Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference at Indiana University in April.
"It's good fortune," says Coviello, smiling. "So many people are crazy about the Civil War, and having this come out as a trade book - rather than through an academic press - allows me to bring some of my scholarship to a more general audience."
It is not Coviello's only recent book project. A new work, Intimacy in America: Dreams of Afilliation in Antebellum Literature, is due to be released by the University of Minnesota Press in April. The result of nearly a decade of research, the work traces the writings of Jefferson, Poe, Melville, Stowe, and Whitman to explore how race and sexuality were used as vehicles for an imagined national coherence.
"The book is about that moment in the mid-19th century when there were competing languages with which people tried to describe what nationality was made of in the United States," says Coviello. "I argue that race, and especially whiteness, became a way to describe a kind of inborn connectedness to anonymous others. Whiteness came to symbolize not only civic entitlement, but a kind of affinity between strangers - an intimacy - which itself became entangled in the nation's evolving codes of sexuality. But there were authors who wanted to imagine alternate ways of viewing the nation - among them was Whitman."
Coviello is currently chair of Bowdoin's program in Gay and Lesbian Studies. He has taught at the college since 1998. For ordering information for his books, visit the Bowdoin Bookstore online.
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