Thoughts in the Time of Pandemic: Walt Whitman at Memorial Day

The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

May is the month of Walt Whitman’s birth and also of Memorial Day, when the nation is asked to pause and delve mindfully into remembrance of past wars and service and sacrifices rendered.

Whitman knew the parameters of service and suffering well. In his prime, the Civil War struck as a kind of pandemic that extracted high prices from ordinary citizens and working people. It called for particular valor and self-sacrifice from those who were already among the most vulnerable, including farm boys and workingmen who fought in the place of wealthier citizens, and African Americans, both enslaved and free, who joined up, volunteered, or supplied intelligence in order to win long-desired emancipation and in service to a greater and more just democracy.

Plaster bust of Walt Whitman by Sidney H. Morse (1878). Charles E. Feinberg collection of Walt Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division. hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms004014.mss18630.02922. Image 1 of 2.

The tremendous death rates of the war were manifested by maiming and taking some while sparing others. Death knew no limits of places of origin. It claimed recruits exposed to maladies like cholera before they ever made it to a battle site. As Whitman came to see it, the war functioned as a violent purging for the collective national sin of slavery. It took its various toll on those who served on its battlefronts and in support capacities in camps. It weighed upon the first responders who performed triage for the wounded after battles, or transported them on litters, in wagons, or on barges to medical care. It wearied the staffs of wartime hospital wards, including the ones in Washington where Whitman volunteered. In his many visits to the Army hospitals, he witnessed those who had fallen ill or faced amputations or surgeries or fought through fevers and infections. He saw them die despite their struggles, or recover and return to service, or head home again, changed persons.

Like many of the thousands who continue to perish in hospitals as victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Civil War soldiers died with no family member by their side. They had instead the ministrations of the deeply weary but caring staff—those like the wound dresser Whitman memorialized in his famous poem, who surveyed his patients upon their cots late at night. Whitman sat as a volunteer visitor by bedsides of the dying, and then reported by letter to grieving families about the final fates of their loved ones. For us now, it is the final cell phone call families receive just before a patient goes on ventilation. For families then, it was a letter that arrived in some unknown hand, or that was left by a son or husband to be sent by a trusted bystander.

In a war that saw bloody and terrible wounds, some which led to life-long disabilities, more soldiers ultimately died of illness and contagious disease than were killed in battle. Their caretakers also paid a high price. Many nurses, including Louisa May Alcott, who nursed for a time in Washington during the war, returned home ill from disease contracted from patients in the hospitals, or suffered ill effects from the medications used at the time to treat the illnesses. Whitman grew very ill while volunteering in the hospitals. He had to take breaks from his ward visits under doctor’s orders, and it is likely the debilitating health problems he faced as an older man stemmed in part from his wartime volunteering.

But to the extent that Whitman knew suffering and the effects of isolation, he also knew joy. In this time of our own pandemic, many in the performing arts are turning to playing music, dancing, or recreating their symphony orchestra repertoires or chamber music pieces online. Strangers sing together through the modern magic of video calls. Singer-songwriters provide us with entertainment from their sofas and kitchens on Facebook and YouTube or other social media sites. The Country Music Awards performances are recreated as a series of music videos shot at the performers’ homes, and broadcast on television together, in place of a now-postponed awards ceremony. Institutions like the Library of Congress serve up a feast of concerts and book talks and interviews and recordings through their sites and online offerings.

Whitman appreciated all kinds of music, including the folk songs and hymns his Dutch mother sang to him when he was a child on Long Island. He had a particular love for Italian opera, and he reviewed opera and symphony as a music critic when he was a journalist in New York City.

Whitman’s diary notes after hearing a Russian contralto (1877). Charles E. Feinberg collection of Walt Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division. hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms004014.mss18630.00016. Image 7 of 7.

He famously said that without hearing opera he could never have written Leaves of Grass. Whitman attended a performance of Verdi (“A Masked Ball”) at the New York Academy of Music the night New Yorkers learned that the Civil War had begun. The man who is often credited with creating a truly “American” literature entertained ideas of peculiarly “American” or democratic forms of opera—one that would be popularly based in storyline, and would combine elements of traditional American music, the kind that came not from elite heights but out of the homegrown talents of ordinary folk, and used instruments such as the fiddle and the banjo. This vision would see popular fruition in more modern times.

Perhaps most importantly, Whitman believed music was possessed of strong mystical, spiritual, and sensual powers; that it was universal and global, eternal and transcendent. It was produced not just by the human voice—by “the pure contralto [who] sings in the organ loft”—or by instruments crafted by human hands, but by Nature herself: by the wind and the sea; in the call of the mockingbird, the rumble of thunder, or the murmur in the tree-tops as the breeze passes. It was in the grunts of the stevedore who unloads the ship and the alarm bell calling firemen to the fire. Music was exultation and rapture. It was grief, terror, or condolence. It expressed what was most essential about life and death, and about transcendence after death, and encompassed both the most horrible and the most divine. “With music strong I come,” Whitman wrote in Section 18 of Song of Myself, “with my cornets and my drums,/ I play not marches for accepted visitors only,/ I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons [as well].”

Whitman figured his poems themselves as songs—e.g., “Chants Democratic,” “Song of the Open Road,” “Song of Parting,” “Song for Occupations,” “Song of the Redwood-Tree,” and, most famously, “Song of Myself,” the magnum opus of Leaves of Grass. “Proud Music of the Sea-Storm,” as first published in 1869 in the Atlantic Monthly (with some help from Ralph Waldo Emerson), alludes to symphonies, as well as festival songs, the swelling sounds of the pipe organ, and to Whitman’s favorite opera singer, Marietta Alboni, whom he termed the Venus contralto, sister to the gods. Each section explores different kinds of music, as Whitman takes the reader on a sweeping travelogue of music-making, human and natural, from America to Asia to Europe. Music’s very globalism provides a dream of unity, closely related to an almost anthropological appreciation of worldwide cultures and religions.

“Beat! Beat! Drums!” is one of Whitman’s war poems. It was first published in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1861 and later included in Whitman’s collection Drum-Taps, produced at the end of the war. It is a poignant meditation on the intrusion of war into normalcy, and the disruptive losses— possibly permanent—it brings to communities and relationships and economic enterprises on the home front. The sound of the beating of the drum, like that played by the drummer boys in battalions, is the sound of loss and change, dread and fate. It intrudes metaphorically through the windows of the “solemn church, and scatter the congregation/ Into the school where the scholar is studying.” It sunders the bridegroom from the bride and takes away the farmer as he is ploughing his field or gathering crops.

Walt Whitman, rough draft lines for “Beat! Beat! Drums!” Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers. hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms004014.mss18630.00597. Image 11 of 12.

A post-war era poem, “Mystic Trumpeter” (1872), features a series of visionary scenarios, including sound of sullen notes that “send darkness through me” and take away cheer and hope. Whitman’s poet-self is hyper-aware in his meditations on “the enslaved, the overthrown, the hurt, and opprest of the whole earth.” But the last section of the poem takes new direction: “give me some vision of the future” the poet asks. “Give me for once its prophecy and joy” he begs, for “A vigor more than earth’s is in thy notes.”  Along with synonyms for happiness he jotted down near drafted trial lines, he reaches through “the power of music” to a transcendent state wherein “All sorrow, suffering gone—. . . ./ Sickness & Death no more—nothing but only health & joy.”

Walt Whitman, rough draft trial lines for “Mystic Trumpeter.” Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division. hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms004014.mss18630.00683. Image 41 of 48.

Since his death, Whitman has been well memorialized in music. Some of his poems have been transformed into art songs and lyrics by composers like Charles Ives and Ned Rorem, and popularized as part of the American Songbook by singers like Thomas Hampson, including in performances at the Library of Congress. Whitman’s poetry has inspired instrumental, choral, and orchestral works that can be studied—when on-site research resumes—as compositions or recorded performances in the Library of Congress Performing Arts Reading Room.

In the later part of Whitman’s life, when he was disabled by strokes and living wheelchair-bound in Camden, N.J., he presented a series of annual performance programs in honor of the death of Abraham Lincoln. In these springtime memorial programs, he combined oratory about the war with the reading of selected poems and live music from the Civil War era. In conjunction with the Revising Himself exhibit on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass, in 2005, the Library of Congress recreated just such a program, featuring Whitman biographer Daniel Mark Epstein reading the oratory in place of Whitman, and a military band providing the music. The webcast remains available on the Library’s website.

In this month of Memorial Day and Whitman’s birth, there are many ways to use Library of Congress resources to honor our nation’s veterans, its devoted caregivers and support personnel, and its promoters of peace and mutual welfare. Visit the Library’s Veteran’s History Project and consider spending stay-at-home time recording a phone interview with a veteran in your own life. Listen to music on the National Jukebox and remember those who have served, or who may be war’s refugees. Enjoy manuscript and transcription versions of Whitman’s poetry and writings through the Library’s digital presentation of the Walt Whitman Charles E. Feinberg, Thomas B. Harned, and Miscellaneous Manuscript collections from the Manuscript Division, or through the recently triumphantly completed online “Walt Whitman at 200” By the People crowdsourcing campaign, to which teachers, students, and life-long learners and Whitman lovers from across the country contributed. Those who enjoyed transcribing Whitman poetry may want to turn to reviewing materials in the By the People Letters to Lincoln or Clara Barton projects, or looking through the other Civil War campaigns.

In his many poetic rhapsodies on the power of music to transform, move, uplift and heal—even for just a while—Whitman talked often of the human voice, musical instruments, the sounds of natural forces, of choruses, grand opera, symphonies—about what these different forms of music signify and the effects on the man or woman who hears. In Section 26 of “Song of Myself” he talks about the music of calamity: the alarm bells of fire wagons rushing to a fire; the march played at the head of the funeral procession for the corpse, the heart wrenching tribute of the lone cornet—but also of the “tenor large and fresh as the creation” who fills him, and the orchestra that ‘whirls me wider than Uranus flies.” Music rattles him and makes him lose his breath, his “windpipe throttled in fakes of death.” But suffocation lets up again, and he is left to “feel the puzzles of puzzles, /And that we call Being.”

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