Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Centenarian's Story, The" (1865)
Author:
Chandran, K. Narayana
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Included as one of the fifty-three poems in Drum-Taps (1865) and later incorporated into the "Drum-Taps" cluster, "The Centenarian's Story" conjures up America's revolutionary past, especially the Battle of Long Island (27 August 1776), which took place in Washington Park, Brooklyn, at Fort Greene. Whitman had earlier called this poem "Washington's First Battle," referring to the part played by the General in the Centenarian's tale.

The poem has three discrete parts: the Volunteer's address-cum-invitation to the Veteran to recount his war memories; the Veteran's account of the war of Brooklyn Heights; and a "Terminus" that helps us see the narrator as a "chansonnier of a great future" exhorting his compatriots to hold firm through the mad fury of the Civil War.

The Volunteer's opening section introduces the terrain, "the plain below [where] recruits are drilling and exercising." He asks the Centenarian why the latter trembles and clutches his hand so convulsively. He assures the old man that "the troops are but drilling"; there is no reason for worry or panic.

The Centenarian begins to answer the Volunteer by recalling how he himself had taken part in a war on "this hilltop, this same ground." He sees the ground now "re-peopled from graves," the engines of war remounted, and the men resuming action. He also remembers the Declaration of Independence read aloud there, the army on parade, and the General standing in the midst of it all holding his unsheathed sword. The Centenarian recalls one scene in particular—the steady march of a brigade made up of young men from the South that confronts death headlong. Memory unwinds yet another spool as the Veteran calls up the alarm and dismay on the perspiring General's face, the wringing of his hands in shame and anguish. The battle over, the General beats a retreat at night. When everyone thinks that the situation warrants capitulation, the General thinks otherwise. And so, recalls the Centenarian, at the break of day, the General's face betrays no sign of despair or resignation.

The poet speaks the "Terminus." His voice is now heard as distinct from the solicitous Volunteer's and the elegizing Veteran's. "I must copy the story," he says, "and send it eastward and westward," a message hopeful and heroic enough to be relayed far and wide. The implicit parallel between the battle of Long Island and the first battle of Bull Run is hard to ignore. The defeat of the Union is, in a way, a trial of the new nation's democratic strength. The "hills and slopes of Brooklyn" now symbolize the values of democratic dharma for which the Americans must fight, even among themselves, so that those values can still be upheld.

Whitman's sophistication in framing the Centenarian's tale is of considerable contemporary interest. The visionary sequence of the middle part is framed by two brief narratives, the first initiatory, and the second summary. While the tale itself is rather extravagant (even baroque) in style, the framing narratives are appropriately analytical, factual, and self-reflexive by turns.

Bibliography

Burrison, William. "Whitman's Drum-Taps Reviewed: The Good, Gray, Tender Mother-Man and the Fierce, Red, Convulsive Rhythm of War." Walt Whitman: Here and Now. Ed. Joann P. Krieg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985. 157–169.

Cavitch, David. My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman. Boston: Beacon, 1985.

Dougherty, James. Walt Whitman and the Citizen's Eye. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.


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