The following is a guest post by Jason Steinhauer, program specialist in the Library’s John W. Kluge Center.
Lindsay Tuggle, Ph.D., teaches English Literary Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. Her dissertation dealt with mourning and ecology in the work of Walt Whitman. As a Kluge Fellow, she has been researching and writing her first book, “The Afterlives of Specimens: Science and Mourning in Whitman’s America.” She lectures on the topic today at noon in the Woodrow Wilson room (LJ-113).
Q: Tell us about your research.
A: I’m at the Library of Congress researching and writing my book, “The Afterlives of Specimens: Science and Mourning in Whitman’s America.” The book explores the shrinking distinction between the body as object of mourning and subject of scientific enquiry throughout the 19th century.
Q: Your lecture explores Walt Whitman and Union surgeon John Brinton. What is the connection between the two and the larger story of death in the Civil War?
A: Whitman and surgeon John H. Brinton, founding curator of the Army Medical Museum, led parallel lives during the war. Both arrived at Falmouth, Va., in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Both frequented the Washington hospitals. Whitman spent the majority of his waking hours caring for wounded soldiers. Brinton recruited hospital surgeons to submit examples of unusual injuries and amputations.
On August 1, 1862, Brinton was directed to establish the Army Medical Museum. This was the beginning of an anatomical collection that would incorporate thousands of Civil War remains, many of which are still on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. The preservation of the body became of paramount importance during the Civil War. While the practice of embalming would have been repulsive to many antebellum mourners, the war altered this perception, due to the collective desire to prolong the visibility of fallen soldiers. This corpse fever was reflected in the popularity of mourning manuals, elegies, séances and posthumous portraiture. The Civil War ushered in an era of national mourning that centered around the memorialisation of bodies en masse.
Q: How did you get interested in Walt Whitman’s perspectives on the dead?
A: Although I live in Australia, I grew up in Alabama and Kentucky, both states where the scars of the Civil War remain unhealed. I’ve always been fascinated by that bloody chapter in our history.
The idea for the book arrived because I wanted to understand how Walt Whitman came to an understanding of the corporeal afterlife so far removed from his initial anxiety in the face of posthumous wounds. What catalyzed this transformation, and how did it respond to cultural changes in medical, mourning and burial practices? “The Afterlives of Specimens” establishes Whitman’s role in evolving cultural understandings of the body as an object of posthumous discovery and desire.
Q: You’ve discovered some rare treasures in the Library’s collection. Tell us about them.
A: I’ve uncovered correspondence between Whitman and Army Medical Museum staff in the post-war years. This evidence of a direct connection between Whitman and the museum is invaluable to my work. I’m especially excited about two items that I found in the Thomas Harned Whitman Collection. One is an untitled draft poem that Whitman composed about his observation of an amputation in a Civil War hospital. The other, which I was most thrilled to discover, is a fragment of an unpublished poem about skeletal human remains that almost certainly relates to specimens at the Army Medical Museum. I will be discussing both of these poems in my lecture on January 24.
Lindsay Tuggle lectures today, Jan. 24, at noon — one of many Library of Congress programs in conjunction with the Library’s acclaimed exhibit “The Civil War in America.” Learn more on the exhibit homepage.