Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Last of the Sacred Army, The" (1842)
Author:
McGuire, Patrick
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This short story first appeared in United States Magazine and Democratic Review in March 1842. For publication history, see Thomas L. Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction. Brasher notes that the dream sequence in chapter 20 of Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times (1842) is an altered version of this story.

The story is a dream narrative in which the narrator watches an old soldier of the Revolutionary War being honored for having been one of Washington's men. Washington is spoken of with a religious awe, and a medallion he had given the old soldier is treated like a holy relic.

Reynolds cites this story as an example of Whitman's jingoism and connects it to Whitman's patriotic poems like "The Centenarian's Story" (1865). But the structural irony of the piece may allow for an alternative reading. Before his dream, the narrator speaks of the coming obsolescence of war; taking hold is a new philosophy, "teaching how evil it is to hew down and slay ranks of fellowmen" (95). What occurs in the dream, however, inculcates the old philosophy that makes heroes, even gods, of warriors.

Robert Abrams, calling this dream narrative a precursor of "The Sleepers" (1855), sees it as an utter failure because Whitman had not yet allowed art to speak honestly. Justin Kaplan sees Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Gray Champion" (1835) as Whitman's original source.

Bibliography

Abrams, Robert E. "An Early Precursor of 'The Sleepers': Whitman's 'The Last of the Sacred Army.'" Walt Whitman Review 22 (1976): 122–125.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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