Mickle Street Review Header

The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War
by Roy Morris, Jr.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.  270 pp.



Roy Morris's narrative history is a well-written and deeply absorbing rendition of Whitman's life during the Civil War, during most of which time the poet tended the sick and dying in Washington, DC hospitals.  His careful stitching together of Whitman's journalistic writings, notebook jottings, correspondence, Memoranda During the War (1875), and poetry from Drum-Taps (1865) brings Whitman's story alive and makes it accessible to the general reader.  One of its greatest virtues is that it reenacts the history of the war from the perspective of Whitman and common soldiers, as seen from the bottom, not the top; as such, Morris succeeds in "put[ting] ... a human face on a most inhuman tragedy," and his grasp of the many dimensions of the Civil War, including the military and medical, is impressive, adding much to our understanding of Whitman in cultural context (ix).  Indeed, when Whitman observed in his Memoranda that "the real war will never get in the books," and that history writing is a "bloodless" affair, he could not have imagined a book like this one, which does not dwell on the exploits of generals but on the many unrecognized heroes who fought on the front lines (241, 240).


Before I point out the book's strengths, however, it is important to point out what this book does not do:  It does not add anything new to the basic story of Whitman's involvement in the war; rather, it takes facts that are already known and brings them together, constructing an engaging narrative out of them.  Throughout the book, Morris relies heavily on scholarship conducted by Charles Glicksberg (especially his Walt Whitman and the Civil War) and Charley Shively, who discovered and published letters back and forth between Whitman and soldiers with whom he had come into contact during his ministrations in Washington hospitals.  There is no original scholarship in Morris's book, and no previously unpublished material is presented.  In light of this fact, it is a bit disingenuous to say at the beginning of the book, as Morris does, that there is a grave lack in Whitman biographies, which "devote [no] more than a passing chapter, at best, to Whitman's Civil War years," and that he has sought "to redress that somewhat surprising historical imbalance"; Glicksberg's book alone proves that this interlude of Whitman's life has not been neglected, even if Glicksberg's book is not, strictly speaking, a biography (ix).  Indeed, even critical biographies of Whitman, most recently David Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America and Jerome Loving's Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, do a very good job of documenting these years and capturing the effect of them on Whitman, even if they do not have the space to spell out Whitman's many emotional attachments during this period.   


Having made clear what the book does not do, I'd like to detail what the book does do—and do well.  One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is the way Lincoln is shown to intersect with Whitman's life, as we are made to see the president as Whitman saw him, and are thereby reminded of the fact that the war is being prosecuted by a man—a man on whom the fighting took a terrible toll.  Indeed, Morris' title The Better Angel is indebted to a trope from Lincoln's first inaugural address, where he holds out hope of ultimate reconciliation between the North and the South, appealing to "the better angels of our nature" (12).  Of course, with Morris applying that epithet to Whitman, it is clear what his attitude toward the poet is:  Whitman emerges from this book as a heroic figure, one whose sympathetic human touch in army hospitals during the war left a lasting impression on all of the soldiers he encountered—those who survived and those who did not.  Whitman first lays eyes on Lincoln when the president-elect visits New York in early 1861; he describes him thus:  "his look and gait—his perfect composure and coolness—his unusual and uncouth height, his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat push'd back on the head, dark-brown complexion, seam's and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, black, bushy head of hair, disproportionately long neck, and his hands held behind him as he stood observing the people" (15).  Looking through Whitman's eyes, we see that composure and coolness transform under the pressure of war.  Just before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln appears to Whitman a changed man:  "He looks more careworn ever than usual, ... his face with deep cut lines, seams, and his complexion gray through very dark skin—a curious looking man , very sad.  I said to a lady who was looking with me, 'Who can see that man without losing all wish to be sharp upon him personally'" (137).  A few pages later on, we are again let in to Whitman's thoughts on Lincoln, his adhesive relationship to him:  "I love the President personally" (150).  We also sight Lincoln from the poet's brother's point of view; as a soldier at the front, George Whitman observes that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation is flawed, as it will not do anything concrete for those slaves freed in the areas of the South not under Union control, even as it stiffens the resolve of the secessionists (78).  For the final time, Whitman spots Lincoln at his second inauguration in early 1865:  he looked "very much worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, underneath the furrows'" (206).  After the assassination, Whitman reflects, Lincoln "'leaves for America's history and biography ... not only its most dramatic reminiscence—he leaves, in my opinion, the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality.... The tragic splendor of his death, purging, illuminating all, throws round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while history lives, and love of country lives'" (220).  Morris clearly feels this way about Whitman, too, and Whitman's close connection to Lincoln in the narrative is intended to suggest the angelic glow of one of America's most empathic and moral poets (229).


This is not to say, however, that Whitman emerges without contradiction or blemish in Morris' re-telling, a fact that rescues the biography from hagiography.  For one thing, Morris makes clear Whitman's ambivalence about race in America during the Civil War years.  In his description of Whitman's relationship with William O'Connor (the man who christened Whitman "the good gray poet"), he points up Whitman's disagreement with his friend's "ardent abolitionism" and the strain that Whitman's suspicion of blacks put on that relationship (81).  When casualties mounted, Whitman wondered whether the slaves were worth it, and when Whitman notices Lincoln standing with his hat off to black soldiers, he remarks that "it looked funny to see the President standing with his hat off to them just the same as the rest" (119, 140).  These sentiments are not very well known, eclipsed as they are by Whitman's sympathetic identifications with slaves in the poems of Leaves of Grass, although a poem like "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," which is in Drum-Taps, suggests his ambivalence, notwithstanding the African-American poet Langston Hughes's embrace of the poem.  Especially on the question of prisoner exchange, Whitman's racism flares up, as he decries Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's insistence that black men count the same as white men in prisoner swaps between the North and the South (192, 197).  Desperately wanting his brother George released from Confederate prison, Whitman is perfectly willing to overlook the rights of black Americans, seeing those rights merely as impediments.  Morris does not flinch from these facts, and the picture we get of Whitman is more rounded—and more human—for it.


Morris is also quite sensible on the subject of Whitman's sexuality, a subject that sometimes leads to trouble in biographies of the poet.  When discussing Whitman's early hospital relief work at Broadway Hospital in New York, he refuses to speculate about sexual liaisons between the poet and stage drivers recuperating there ("This is not to suggest that all—or perhaps any—of the young men became physically intimate with Whitman"), but he plainly shows that Whitman found those drivers physically attractive, as he jotted down descriptions of them in his notebooks (29).  At another moment in the story, when Whitman is depicted kissing a soldier in a Washington hospital, Morris shrewdly states, "At the far end of another century, it is possible to read too much into that kiss.  Same-sex affection had not yet become eroticized, and overt demonstrations of affection between men—kissing, hugging, stroking, and petting—were commonplace.... Nevertheless, the fervency of Whitman's affection, particularly for [Thomas] Sawyer, seems to have exceeded mere wartime camaraderie" (133).  Quoting from letters Whitman wrote to Sawyer, Morris lets Whitman's own ardent rhetoric do the talking, leaving no room to doubt the intensity of Whitman's passion.  When we reach Whitman's encounter with Peter Doyle, a coach driver he met in Washington in the winter of 1865, we again find no speculation as to sexual contact; rather, Morris gives us a very moving account of the deeply affective nature of their relationship, an account driven by reports of those who actually saw them together.


Another fine aspect of this book is Morris's keen sense of Whitman's revolutionary poetic style, and his several forays into literary criticism meet with much success.  He sees well the significance of a poem like "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" in Drum-Taps—its photographic realism and masterful manipulation of point of view—and expounds beautifully on other poems that attest to Whitman's imagistic art, his essential "modernity" (61, 67).  He also recognizes the modal trajectory of Drum-Taps, its movement from bombast to plaint.  Too often, biographical treatments of literary figures by writers from other disciplines are marred by an inability to grasp or discuss intelligently literary effects.  Morris is an exception, and his own artful weaving of Venus, the evening star, in his book as a symbol of Lincoln and a foreshadowing of his death sets up his finale—a reading of Whitman's famous elegy for Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and its publication in Drum-Taps.


In 1873, Whitman moved from Washington, DC to his brother George's home in Camden, New Jersey, and it was from this spot that Whitman published his memories of the war, fearing that its intimate incidents and effects ("the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors") would be forgotten.  Morris extends Whitman's project, bringing to us in vivid color the events of the war as Whitman felt them, that is, a ground-level view of the war.  This trend in Civil War historiography is perhaps best represented by Edward Ayers and Anne Rubin's CD-ROM and World Wide Web site The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, a hypermedia archive that examines through letters, diaries, newspapers, and photographs the immediate and engrossing experience of the war on families from one Northern (Franklin County, Pennsylvania) and one Southern (Augusta County, Virginia) community.  Likewise, in Morris's drama, "all the vast and complicated events of the war, on which history dwells and makes its volumes, fall aside," as in Specimen Days Whitman insisted they must.