How the American Civil War Gave Walt Whitman a Call to Action

Mark Edmundson on the Great American Poet as Defender of Democracy

Walt Whitman did all he could to advance the fortunes of his own book, Leaves of Grass. He reviewed it himself, not once but three times.

“An American Bard at last,” he crowed. Whitman, the New Yorker, was commercially minded. Quickly, he got to work on a new edition. He wrote more poems and published them a year later in the edition of 1856. This volume is short and squat, a quarto, not an expansive folio like the 1855. It looks to be loaded with compact muscle.

Whitman did something memorable to the 1856 volume, which he published himself, something that Emerson probably never fully forgave him for. He took a line from the moving letter that Emerson sent him to celebrate the first edition of Leaves and embossed it in gold on the spine of the book.

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, R. W. Emerson,” the binding says. Whitman neglected to ask Emerson’s permission, and, we’re told, the Sage of Concord was quite angry with the American Bard. Emerson did regain his equanimity—in which he put considerable stock—though this was not the last time that he would grow unhappy with the pupil who turned out to be more than a pupil. In the new book, Whitman included a long letter to Emerson, in which he addressed him as “master.” Perhaps that helped calm the sage down.

The 1856 volume didn’t do what Whitman hoped—none of his volumes really did. He wanted his books to pass into the hands of “the people.” He wanted the people he celebrated to read and enjoy the celebration. That didn’t happen in 1855 or 1856 or in 1860, when the third volume of Leaves came out.

At the end of his life, at the close of a birthday celebration in Camden, New Jersey, that moved Whitman to tears, he still mourned the fact that his work had never really reached what he thought of as his true audience. Maybe this is so because Whitman presents insurmountable conceptual and metaphorical difficulties. Perhaps it’s also that his vision, though cogent and reasonably consistent, remains far out ahead of us. All through his life, Whitman kept trying.

Whitman published other notable poems in the 1855 edition, especially the ones that would be titled “There Was a Child Went Forth,” “The Sleepers,” and “Boston Ballad.” After 1855 came the strange and moving elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” as well as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” Whitman also composed some wonderful short poems, such as “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing,” “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

Virtually all of Whitman’s poems have at least one or two memorable lines. Yet much of his work after 1855, and almost all of it after 1865, has something of a programmatic air. It’s as though Whitman is writing commentary on Song of Myself. He had experienced an astonishing vision. But what exactly did the vision mean? What were its implications? And maybe most important, how might he and his country live it out?

Not long after the 1856 edition came out, Whitman moved back to Brooklyn with his mother and extended family, to live in a basement apartment. The family had to rent out the top floor to keep itself even marginally solvent. Whitman wrote poems and some journalistic pieces for a few dollars here and there. He still composed constantly. Walt turned almost every consequential experience into words. But gradually his studied and happy indolence turned into aimlessness: loafing became lassitude. His interest in writing poems dwindled.

Almost every day, Whitman traveled from Brooklyn, usually by ferry, to Manhattan. There he spent his time at a below-ground Broadway establishment called Pfaff’s. The restaurant was the meeting place for a group of American artists, actors, journalists, actresses, and writers, who thought of themselves as Bohemians. The man who brought the Bohemian life over from Paris was a Nantucket born and raised writer and editor named Henry Clapp. Clapp had been to Paris, where he’d lived for a couple of years on the Left Bank, acquiring a French mistress and learning to live the sensuous, lazy life of French cafes and theater. Clapp was the main figure at the long table under Broadway, where the Bohemians gathered.

Pfaff, the proprietor, was German, rotund, gregarious, and hospitable. He seems to have loved filling his restaurant with the fast and slightly scandalous figures who came to sit with Clapp, shoot the breeze, indulge in duels of wit, and plan great futures for themselves. Among the wits, Clapp was preeminent. Of his rival editor Horace Greeley (my ancestor, I was told as a boy), Clapp said, he’s a “self-made man who worships his creator.”

Perhaps it’s also that his vision, though cogent and reasonably consistent, remains far out ahead of us.

Women as well as men sat at the long table: among them Ada Clare, the “Queen of Bohemia,” and Adah Menken, the most notorious actress of the day, who rode onto the stage wearing a nude body stocking in a play based on Byron’s Beppo. Whitman sat at the long table too—though there was little of the wit about him. He was prone to quiet conversation with the Bohemians sitting closest, but more than that, he was inclined to listen. Whitman was as devoted a listener as he was an observer. Everyone who knew him at Pfaff’s seems to have liked him.

The primary Bohemian, Clapp was an early champion of Whitman’s work, and never ceased in his admiration for the poet or his willingness to help publicize him. Whitman drank at Pfaff’s, but not very much. It seems a beer would last him through the night. He occasionally had a glass of champagne. His abstemious ways and relative silence didn’t stop him from becoming a figure there. He was known as the author of a scandalous volume—the erotic side of Whitman’s poetry had been excoriated in a dozen ways by at least a dozen reviewers. He also dressed the part of the avant-garde artist: slouch hat, open shirt, pants tucked into high boots. His beard had gone richly aflower. He looked like someone to reckon with, which in his way he was.

But Whitman didn’t spend all his time at Pfaff’s sitting at the long table and listening to the wits vie with each other for Clapp’s approval. There was another table closer to the center of the tavern that Whitman also favored. This one was populated by young men, whose company Whitman apparently relished as much as he did that of the wits. Was it what we would call a gay culture that Whitman was involved in? It’s not certain.

For some time, Whitman had been drawn to the company of males, usually young and working class. He listed their names in his journals, walked with them, talked with them, hugged and kissed them, and occasionally slept with them. Was there sex involved? None of Whitman’s behavior was unusual for midcentury America, where intense same-sex friendships arose between men and women alike.

Many women approached Whitman with romance in mind. He fended them off, usually with some charm. But he pursued intimate relations with men quite frequently. Were they ever consummated? Of Whitman’s prominent critics, Richard Poirier seems most certain that Whitman led a thriving sexual life during his Broadway days. David Reynolds, the author of a comprehensive volume on Whitman and his cultural milieu, is far less certain. On the matter of Whitman and homosexual sex, he’s an agnostic, as am I.

Many of the men Whitman befriended during his days at Pfaff’s were stage drivers. They drove horse-drawn wagons ferrying passengers and freight up and down Broadway. Broadway could be chaotic: few traffic regulations, little enforcement of those that existed, busy people hustling in all directions. Accidents were common, fights between the drivers frequent. Many of the drivers got hurt, some of them badly. Whitman, who often rode up on the box with them as they banged their ways up and down Broadway, was a loyal friend. When they were injured, he visited them in the hospital. He sat by their bedsides, talked with them, joked, offered them tobacco and other small gifts. He also did one of the things he did best: he listened.

Whitman could sit by the hour at a driver’s bed, learning about who he was, where he came from, what his dreams were, and where his problems lay. The drivers liked and respected Whitman, and in the hospital, his connections with them strengthened. There was sometimes a forced, nearly hysterical quality about the revelry at Pfaff’s during the late 1850s. America was moving closer to war. Many of the regulars pretended to ignore the coming cataclysm, but not Whitman. He worried for his nation. He had appointed himself its personal bard, and he believed that the welfare of any nation, but especially a democracy, was much in the hands of its poets.

Whitman was furiously committed to the idea of Union. The United States must stay one and whole. If it did not, the democratic ideal might go down as a failure. Whitman did all he could in his poems and journalism to fight for national unity. In this, he was much like Lincoln: Whitman detested slavery, but the prospect of disunion was his principal anxiety. Lincoln said that if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do so. Whitman the citizen and journalist would have concurred: though as we’ve seen, Whitman the visionary nurtured other aspirations about race in democratic America.

America was moving toward crisis, and the denizens of Pfaff’s, Whitman included, were dealing with it in their various ways. Whitman wrote and brooded, brooded and wrote, and braced himself for the moment when his beloved Union would undergo major challenge. Walt saw Lincoln for the first time on Tuesday, February 19, 1861, when the president went to New York, on the way to Washington, DC, for his inauguration. Whitman was one of a crowd of 30,000 gathered on Broadway to get a look at the president-elect. Walt saw Lincoln leave his carriage, mount the steps of the Astor Hotel, turn, take a slow, melancholy look around, then disappear behind closed doors. Lincoln did not speak a word to the crowds that had gathered to see him. (Or so Whitman says—others claim he made brief remarks.) Whitman was on the top of a stagecoach when he saw Lincoln, the man who would fascinate and move him for the next four years and beyond.

Looking back, Whitman recalled how “two or three shabby hack barouches [four-wheeled horse-drawn carriages] made their way with some difficulty through the crowd, and drew up at the Astor House entrance. A tall figure step’d out of the centre of these barouches, paus’d leisurely on the sidewalk, look’d up at the granite walls and looming architecture of the grand old hotel—then after a relieving stretch of arms and legs, turn’d round for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance of the vast and silent crowds.”

A handful of states had already left the Union by the day that Whitman saw Lincoln arrive in New York, and before long, Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter. War was on. The next two years were among the worst of Walt’s life. He was too old to fight: he was now in his forties, and all the beefsteak, champagne, and butter he’d consumed at Pfaff’s had made him portly. Whitman had been terrified by the idea of Civil War—he hated the thought of the states being at deadly odds with each other. (The states being in tension with one another was fine with Walt: he wanted as much diversity and even opposition as possible, without fracture.)

Whitman was furiously committed to the idea of Union.

Once war came, Whitman became a fierce proponent of Northern victory. Lincoln called for mass enlistment, and Whitman wrote a poem—not one of his best—seconding the call. Whitman continued to write poetry and some journalism from the start of the war through to 1862, but these were among his worst days.

He simply did not know what to do with himself. What should the bard of America do when his nation was split and its citizens were off trying to kill one another? Whitman rambled and wrote a little, wrote some and rambled. But he was living with no sense of purpose. The casualty reports rolled in, and what had seemed like it would be a short war went on and on. The new recruits who marched out of New York City to fight the Rebs left with ropes tied around the barrels of their rifles, each planning to drag a Confederate recruit back home with him. Matters didn’t go as planned. The soldiers who enlisted on the Union side generally couldn’t imagine the war would last four months—it would continue for four years. Whitman, lost in a purgatory of his own, had no sense what to do.

Then one day, everything changed. George Whitman, Walt’s younger brother, had enlisted at Lincoln’s first call for volunteers. He was one of the men who’d gone off with a rope around his rifle. George was an anomaly in the Whitman family: sane, affectionate, decent, unimaginative, and practical. Walt loved him deeply, as he loved all his family, and was perpetually anxious about George’s fate. After every major battle George fought in, and there were plenty of them, the Whitman family searched through the casualty reports for his name. George emerged from one engagement after another unharmed.

Then came the Battle of Fredericksburg, which left 13,000 Union soldiers dead or wounded in a single day. The Whitmans knew that George was deployed near the battle site and began searching the newspapers for word of him. The New York Tribune carried news of a First Lieutenant George Whitmore of the 51st New York, George’s regiment, who’d been wounded. How badly, the paper didn’t say. Surely this could be a transcription or a printing error, the Whitmans thought: this could be their George. Almost immediately, Walt was off to find his brother and make sure he was all right.

Whitman was a resourceful traveler, and in only a few days, he made it to the front lines, found George’s regiment, and then, in short order, George. George was fine. A piece of shrapnel had sliced into his cheek, but he was well and in his usual high spirits. (How George emerged from the Whitman family as healthy, hearty, and relatively commonplace as he was is no small mystery.)

Whitman was fascinated by life in the camp, and quickly made friends with the soldiers. (Whitman, true to the persona of Song, was about as gregarious and friendly as it was possible for an inwardly attuned individual to be.) He ate with the soldiers, sharing their rations; he learned about the battles they’d fought and about their backgrounds and their aspirations for life after the war. He liked them a great deal—no surprise, Whitman cherished the company of everyday young American men—and apparently the soldiers took quickly to Walt. George was already well regarded in the regiment: he was reliable, brave, and good-humored.

He did for the soldiers much of what he’d done for the Broadway stage drivers when they were hurt.

Walt’s spirits, depressed for months, began to rise. On the first day at camp, Walt saw something that shocked and fascinated him. An engagement was recently over, and there outside the surgical tent, he saw a hill of amputated arms and legs. The surgeons were still at work, and Walt, not terribly squeamish, no stander above men and women in their distress, went into the field hospital and even into the surgeons’ tent and watched and wondered. He gave what help he could— Whitman wasn’t a trained nurse, but he assisted with basic tasks, like moving the wounded soldiers from place to place.

When he could, he sat with the wounded men and talked with them and joked and—compassionate (and authentically modest) bard that he was—he listened. He did for the soldiers much of what he’d done for the Broadway stage drivers when they were hurt. Not far away the formidable nurse Clara Barton was working headlong to help the fallen. Whitman watched Barton in amazement, and understood he could never do what she with her nurse’s training could. But slowly an idea seemed to gather in him.

He was feeling alive for the first time in months. It wasn’t enough to write poems about the war; it wasn’t enough to write journalistic pieces, though Whitman wrote some effective dispatches from the camps. He wanted to do more, and now he saw what, given his talents and his heart’s inclination, he might contribute.

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Song of Ourselves

Excerpted from Song of Ourselves: Walt Whitman and the Fight for Democracy. Used with the permission of the publisher, Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Mark Edmundson
Mark Edmundson
Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. He teaches courses in Romantic and Modern Poetry, Shakespeare, and Nineteenth Century Philosophy. He has published eight books, including Teacher; Literature against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida; The Death of Sigmund Freud and The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll. His essays have appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Raritan, The Yale Review, New Literary History, American Literary History and The London Review of Books. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change. He has been awarded the Daniels Family Distinguished Teaching Professorship at the University of Virginia, for excellence in undergraduate teaching.





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