Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Broadway Hospital (New York)
Author:
Donlon, David Breckenridge
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

While his visits to the Civil War hospital in Washington are more famous, Whitman actually began visiting the sick at New York Hospital in the 1850s. The institution, known as the Broadway Hospital, though it was just off Broadway on Pearl Street, engaged Whitman's attention especially during the early years of the Civil War. He was interested both in the hospital itself as a scientific institution and in the human suffering he witnessed there.

Although he was interested in helping all those confined, before the war broke out Whitman particularly concerned himself with the circumstances of the stage drivers he met there. Dr. D.B. St. John Roosa, in an article for the 20 June 1898 edition of the Mail and Express (New York), recalled, "No one could see him [Whitman] sitting by the bedside of a suffering stage driver without soon learning that he had a sincere and profound sympathy for this order of men" (30). Whitman also cultivated a relationship with the physicians, who allowed him great freedom in the hospital, even occasionally permitting him to witness surgical operations.

After the war began, Whitman wrote several articles based on his experiences at New York Hospital. The first was published in March of 1862 in the New York Leader, under the pseudonym of Velsor Brush, a combination of his mother's maiden name (Van Velsor) and his paternal grandmother's maiden name (Hannah Brush). The articles were part of a series entitled "City Photographs," which included four articles on the Broadway Hospital. In one of these Whitman wrote, "What a volume of meaning, what a tragic poem there is in every one of those sick wards!" (qtd. in Masur 47). In these articles, he repaid the doctors' kindness to him by calling for greater support, public and private, of the city hospitals, which he regarded as important democratic institutions.

During the early years of the war, Whitman continued to make regular visits to the hospital, but he focused his attention mostly on the war-wounded housed there, wishing to cheer them and relieve the monotony of their days. It was during this time that Whitman developed the skills that he used so effectively at the Civil War hospitals in Washington. In one of his articles for the Leader, he observed that the wounded responded especially well to small gifts of food or reading matter left for them by a compassionate lady (who preferred not to allow Whitman to use her name in the paper). When in December of 1863 Whitman began his ministrations to the wounded in Washington, he was already a practiced caretaker. He recalled his experiences at the New York Hospital, in particular remembering the effects of the anonymous lady's gifts, and always tried to have something on hand to give the soldiers he met, which he bestowed upon them affectionately.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Masur, Louis. "'The Experience Sweet and Sad': Whitman's Visits to New York Hospitals." Seaport 26 (Spring 1992): 46–49.

Roosa, Dr. D.B. St. John. Untitled article in Henry Stoddard's "World of Letters." Mail and Express 20 June 1898: 30.


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