Whitman’s War and the Status of Literature
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Whitman’s War and the Status of Literature

While the Critical Landscape Still Bears the powerful imprint of the linguistic turn, and its focus on epistemological issues, the opening lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” sound refreshingly obsolete: “I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (188).1 In a leap of undisguised arrogance, Whitman’s poetics affirms the communicative transparency of language, the capacity to share one’s life in words, and to embody other people’s experiences within the text, beyond spatial, temporal, sexual or racial lines: “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, / Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, / Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man” (203).2 Extending his omnivorous polymorphism beyond the accepted contours of America’s system of legal and political representation, the poet even turns into “The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat” (225). And yet, the cosmic, all-encompassing bard of America’s letters can also be a poet of opaque uncertainty, untranslatable contradictions and invisible fugitivity: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / . . . / I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / . . . / You will hardly know who I am or what I mean” (246–47). Throughout Whitman’s corpus, the affirmative tone of his poetic litany is interspersed with not-so-rare moments of doubt and uncertainty. While “There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage,” the lists of catalogues, enumerations, interjections and exclamations often cede the way to parenthetical spaces, suspended questions and other textual markers of hesitancy: “(I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips)” (240, 230). [End Page 23] In his essay, “Phrenological Whitman,” Nathaniel Mackey captures the tonal discrepancy of Whitman’s poetics in the following terms: “one of the things I find most interesting in Whitman’s work is that tension, the unarrestable play between latent and manifest that brings an otherwise hopeful hermeneutic to grief ” (36).3 Whitman’s treatment of the Civil War also follows the movement of this fractured hermeneutic. As such, it offers a unique perspective into his multitudes, or what the poet himself calls “the duplicates of myself ” (235).

Catastrophes have always been fruitful ground for creativity. This is not only the case of natural disasters, such as the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake—which famously inspired Voltaire’s “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne” (1756)—but also that of human-induced destruction. In spite of Theodor Adorno’s famous remark about the incompatible relation between the radical violence of World War II and the writing of poetry, human warfare has been and remains a central motive of literary production. Famous examples are, to name a few, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage Au Bout de la Nuit (1932), André Malraux’s L’Espoir (1938), Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) or the poetries of Osip Mandelstam and Paul Celan. Of course, America’s Civil War occupies a central place in Whitman’s poetry. War poems are scattered throughout his work, and the Drum-Taps section of Leaves of Grass focuses on the poet’s response to what he once described as “a conflict (often happening, and very fierce) between the passions and paradoxes of one and the same identity” (“Origins of Attempted Secession” 994). The most substantial portion of the author’s autobiography, Specimen Days (1882), is also dedicated to the recording of his experiences as a nurse in the improvised hospitals of America. Without exaggeration, it can be argued that the Civil War was the violent event that created Whitman’s poetic persona as we know it today. As Paul Zweig notes, “the Civil War brought a terrible renewal to Whitman” (18). With the publication of the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass (1871), the author emphasized the centrality of this moment by re-arranging the war cluster Drum-Taps and placing it at the center...


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