Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place


American Space to American Place: Whitman’s Reckoning of a New Nation
Tim Campbell Rutgers University - Camden

            It is no surprise that for the first year of the Civil War Whitman expressed his staunch support for the Union’s cause and his faith in the preservation of the Union--he had believed his entire life that America was, as he expressed in his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, a “teeming nation of nations.”  Initially, Whitman used his immense imaginative faculties to spread this belief; he would piece together stories he read in newspaper articles--particular battles in which soldiers were involved, outcomes of these battles, etc.--and use the fragments as a basis for many of his early Civil War writings.  In his book The Better Angel, Roy Morris points out that after the Union army was surprised by the Confederate troops at Bull Run creek in Virginia, Whitman, “235 miles away in Brooklyn, imaginatively relived the battle’s final moments” and wove a story “drawn from various newspaper accounts, [about] the demoralized mob of soldiers” (42).  His early view of the war, then, was based upon speculation and imagination, not upon a reality that he witnessed first-hand.

            Although he had no intention of traveling to Washington, DC, Whitman would be moved to go on December 16, 1862; the New York Tribune reported a list of New York volunteers who had been injured or killed in the line of duty--there were no specific accounts of the injuries reported with the names--and Walt’s brother George was on the list.  When he received the news, Whitman left immediately for Washington in order to find any information he could about his brother’s condition.  From that time through the remainder of the war, Whitman’s musings about the United States and his method of relating these ideas to others changed drastically; he would witness first-hand the Civil War’s devastating effects on so many young men and on the nation he felt for so strongly.

            The sudden change of place forced Whitman to view America in a new light--an America based not on jubilant musings about the young nation from his existence in Manhattan, but instead a war-torn America based upon dread and uncertainty of the future.  Rather than rely on his imagination alone, Whitman had to acknowledge the reality that quite literally stared him in the face through the eyes of dying men; his transcendent thoughts about America and its people might amount to little more than a pile of rubbish. 

            A fuller understanding of the nature of place and its effects can help us see more clearly the development and import of Drum-Taps.  Yi-Fu Tuan makes this distinction between “place” and “space”: “Space is a common symbol of freedom in the Western world.  Space lies open; it suggests the future and invites action . . . open space has no trodden paths and signposts.  It has no fixed pattern of established human meaning; it is like a blank sheet upon which meaning may be imposed” (54).  On the other hand, place is an area a person knows well; as Tuan states, “place is permanent and hence reassuring to man who sees frailty in himself and chance and flux everywhere” (154).  It is “enclosed and humanized space,” a “calm center of established values” (54).  Place requires an interpreting consciousness.  Therefore, once a person enters space--an area that has no paths or signposts--it gradually acquires elements of place as the interpreting consciousness writes his or her values upon the area.  Conversely, place can gradually become space if the “calm center of established values” upon which the place rests is brought into question, with uncertainty replacing the reassurance place offers.

             Manhattan was a place that Whitman knew intimately; he had lived in its immediate vicinity his entire life with the exception of a brief trip to New Orleans with his brother Jeff in 1848.  He was well aware of his surroundings and, more importantly, secure in the area he knew so well.  And so, as the war breaks out, in “First O Songs for A Prelude” Whitman intones confidently and parochially: “O superb! O Manhattan, my own, my peerless!  O strongest you in the hour of danger, in crisis! O truer than steel!”  (416). “Peerless Manhattan” comforts Whitman in this hour of danger. 

            The narrator’s ideas about the war, initially, are shaped under this reassurance that the city provides.  Take, for instance, this passage:

                        Forty years had I in my city seen soldiers parading,
                        Forty years as a pageant, till unawares the lady of

                                    this teeming and turbulent city,
                        Sleepless amid her ships, her houses, her incalculable wealth,
                        With her million children around her, suddenly,
                        At dead of night, at news from the south,
                        Incens’d struck with clinch’d hand the pavement.  (416)

Before the city was forced to take action, before she “struck with clinch’d hand the pavement” upon hearing “news from the south,” it was merely another “teeming and turbulent city;” the sight of “soldiers parading” was pure “pageant” (416).  Neither the soldiers nor the city’s inhabitants (the “mechanics,” the “blacksmiths,” the “lawyer,” the “driver” the “salesman”) would become anything more than a spectacle had the city itself not released a “shock electric” to rouse them (416).  Everyone willingly accepts their matron’s call “with common consent and arm” (417).  The city is the secure place--the established center of values--upon which the narrator draws strength. 

             However, by the middle of Drum-Taps, in the poem “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame,” we sense a shift in point of view, as the speaker finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings.  Because he is enveloped in an unknown area, a “space,” as a result of being closer to the realities of the war and the flux it represents, the narrator must struggle to reassure himself, with chance and change everywhere.  When describing the “shrubs and trees,” the speaker observes, “as I lift my eyes, they seem to be / stealthily watching me” (436).  The place is suspect in some way, and the description of the bivouac’s flame as “fitful” suggests the “shifting, changing, capricious” nature of this landscape. Through the lens of the fitful flame, then, the narrator’s perception cannot be steadfast and certain because the area in which he finds himself is constantly shifting shape--it is still a “space,” not yet a “place.”

            It has been asserted that “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame” is the moment in Drum-Taps “when the poet’s physical presence first clearly emerges,” and, as a result, “his tone changes from glorification of war to a sorrowing acceptance of its miseries” (McWilliams 196).  I would argue further that the poet’s physical presence emerges as it does because he cannot hide behind the protected wall of a city he knows well, a place of shelter.  Being in the space of the battlefield requires him to assert himself on the landscape, upon the blank canvas in which he is situated, as he tries to harness the flux of war.  The “welcome for battle” and the “manly life in the camp” that the narrator in “First O Songs” joyfully anticipates is replaced with quiet reflection, which occurs as he “sits on the ground,” quite literally a strategy to emplace himself.

            Whitman’s attempts to ground himself continue in the mid-section of the book.  In the poem “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown,” there is no center of established values; instead, the narrator is lost in a maze of dense woods, the road ahead unknown.  Once he is confronted with the scene of an “impromptu hospital,” he is shocked by the “surgeons operating,” the “smell of ether, the odor of blood . . . an occasional scream or cry” (440).  The smells, the sights, and the sounds all play horribly upon the speaker’s mind.  He admits his inability to know where the path of the war is truly headed: “Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching . . . / the unknown road still marching” (440).  Nothing reassures here.  The narrator states, “before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to / absorb it all” (440).  His conscious efforts to “absorb” the scene represent his attempt to turn this American space into an American place, a place loaded with his democratic, conciliatory principles. 

            Finally, in the poem “To the Leaven’d Soil They Trod,” Whitman has succeeded in converting the space of war into a place that he can find solace in.  The American soil has been permanently changed by the blood of both Northerners and Southerners who fought for the ideals in which they believed.  The speaker is not afraid of his surroundings any longer, but instead accepts “the freshness of the forenoon air, in the far-stretching / circuits.”   He is jubilant because the “vistas” are “again to peace restored.”  The “fiery fields emanative and the endless vistas beyond,” “the leaven’d soil of the general Western world,” “attest” the narrator’s beliefs (458).  Indeed, the narrator can understand America in a way that he was not able to before, as this hallowed ground becomes the calm center of his established values.

            The poet gains the ability to fill the blank canvas, to sing of what America truly is, by an acceptance of the war and what it has done for the nation.  Rather than an imposition of will from a parochial perspective, the narrator accepts the varying aspects of changed or “leaven’d” American place: “the rocks I calling sing, and all the trees in the woods, / to the plains . . . to the prairies spreading wide / to the far off sea and the unseen winds . . . they answer all” (but not in words)” (458).  The natural landscape in “To the Leaven’d Soil” not only answers the narrator’s call, but embraces him as a father embraces a son: “The prairie draws me close, as the father to bosom broad / the son” (458).  There is here an understanding and acceptance of a changed America.

             Whitman states in Specimen Days that the “land entire [is] saturated, perfumed with [soldiers’] impalpable ashes’ exhalation, in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw” (801).  As long as there is an America, Whitman implies, the soldiers’ sacrifices will be remembered by the land--even long after actual witnesses to the war have passed--because the remains of the soldiers are “distill’d” in the soil.  I agree with Kazin when he points out that “By particular attention to the war’s devastated landscape, [Whitman] meant to show how much he drew his mystical sense of nationhood from the land” (78).  Only after the soil was fed with the blood of a nation’s sons and daughters was Whitman able to connect to a real, shared national identity, not an identity based on some narrow regionalism.  He ultimately made meaning out of the war’s flux, and brought forth a new enlarged sense of place at the end of his poetic sequence, making himself at home from “the Alleghanian hills” to “the tireless Mississippi” (458).


Works Cited

Kazin, Alfred.  A Writer’s America: Landscape in Literature.  New York:         Knopf, 1988.  

Kennedy, J. Gerald.  Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity.  New

            Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

McWilliams, John P.  “Drum Taps and Battle Pieces: The Blossom of War.”

            American Quarterly 23:2 (1971): 181-201. 

Merrifield, Andrew.  “Place and Space: A Lefebvrian Reconciliation.”  Transactions of

            the Institute of British Geographers 18:4 (1993): 516-531.

Morris, Roy.  The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War.  New York:

            Oxford University Press, 2000.

Thomas, M. Wynn.  “Walt Whitman and Mannahatta--New York.”  American Quarterly 

            34:4 (1982): 362-378. 

Tuan, Yi-Fu.  Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience.  Minneapolis:

            University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

Whitman, Walt.  Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose.  New York: Library of America,


Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place