Walt Whitman’s War Work: Primary Sources in the English Classroom

The following is a guest post by Rebecca Newland, Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress. It is cross posted on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog.

Walt Whitman, head-and-shoulders portrait, 1863

Walt Whitman, head-and-shoulders portrait, 1863
//www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004675303/

One way for teachers to engage students with poetry is to connect poems and poets to historical events. Students gain a deeper appreciation of poets and their work when they can see snippets of the writer’s life in the work. Poems take on special meaning when connected to real events, evoking the emotions of a specific time and place students may have only read about. Primary sources related to a poet’s experiences offer first-hand connections between poet and event.

Walt Whitman is one poet whose experiences can lead to classroom discussions about the connection between an author’s life and work. For instance: Whitman moved to Washington, DC, in December 1862, prompted by news that his brother George had been injured at Fredericksburg, Virginia. He became a volunteer nurse at a number of war hospitals–including the Armory Square hospital, which stood where the National Air and Space Museum stands today on the National Mall. His work as a visitor and amateur nurse served as an influence, in poems such as “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.”

“Miscellaneous News Items,” New-York daily tribune. (New-York [N.Y.]), 29 April 1863
//chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030213/1863-04-29/ed-1/seq-2/

Teachers can consider using portions of the notebooks from the collections of the Library of Congress to investigate such influences on Whitman’s poetry. The notebooks provide insight into the time he spent in hospitals, where he jotted brief information about soldiers including name, home town and state, military division, and special requests. Other entries are battle stories told to him by the wounded. These stories, along with Whitman’s visits to nearby battlefields, shaped his wartime poetry. A draft of “A sight in camp in the day-break grey and dim,” published in Drum-Taps, appears in his 1862-63 notebook.

Teachers can look for clues to Whitman’s writing process by comparing this to a published version.

Page from Whitman's notebook LC #94, 1862

Page from Whitman’s notebook LC #94, 1862
//www.loc.gov/resource/whitman.094/#seq-160

Additional teaching ideas:

  • Ask students to investigate the life of a poet, not for the facts but for involvement in historical events, connection to a geographic location, or inspiration based on personal experience.
  • Team with a social studies teacher to develop a list of writers and specific literary selections (this works with novels or short stories as well as poems) that can be connected to historical events and eras. Ask students to explore these events and write their own literary reaction.
  • Ask students to produce their own writing in connection to personal or historic events.

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