Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
South, The American
Author:
Huffstetler, Edward W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Consisting of fifteen states, eleven of which would eventually form the Southern Confederacy, along with four border states, the American South held a place in Whitman's imagination and poetry before the Civil War, but his depictions became less romanticized and more emotionally charged after the war, even taking somewhat of a bitter tone after Abraham Lincoln's death. Whitman spent time in the South twice during his life, once in 1848 for a three-month stint as editor of the New Orleans Crescent and later to check on his brother George at the army field hospital in Falmouth, Virginia, during the Civil War, a trip which resulted in his remaining in Washington—which Whitman considered a Southern city, for eleven years, working as a clerk for various governmental agencies from 1862 until he suffered a stroke in 1873.

After Whitman was fired from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle because of his free-soil politics, he ran into J.E. McClure in the lobby of a Broadway theater. McClure was starting a new daily in New Orleans called the New Orleans Crescent and made Whitman an offer on the spot. Forty-eight hours later, on 11 February 1848, Whitman and his fourteen-year-old brother Jeff, an apprenticed printer, were on their way south, arriving in New Orleans on 25 February 1848. While Whitman and his brother enjoyed the atmosphere of the famed Southern city, the position at the Crescent was not ideal. Whitman's political views were controversial, and somewhat of an embarrassment to McClure, who became cold toward the brothers, finally terminating their employment in May after a squabble over a cash advance. The brothers left on 27 May, arriving in New York sometime in mid-June.

Whitman wrote extensively in letters and in his journal about the South, often presenting a rather stylized, romanticized view of its exotic qualities and its genteel, aristocratic appeal. The poems concerning the South, or set in the South, written prior to the Civil War—of which there were essentially three: "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," "Once I Pass'd through a Populous City," and "O Magnet-South"—depict a rather stereotypical South with lush, sensual images, indicating to some biographers the possibility of a New Orleans romance. This inference began with the English biographer Henry Bryan Binns, who speculated that these poems, along with a written statement that Whitman had made to John Addington Symonds (in response to Symonds's suggestion that Whitman was homosexual) in which he claimed to have Southern offspring and at least one Southern grandchild, revealed that Whitman had had an affair with an upper class Creole lady of Spanish descent. More recent biographers discount the "New Orleans romance" altogether, but the poems remain, nevertheless, emblematic of Whitman's somewhat romanticized, passionate view of the South he had seen during this period.

Whitman's second excursion to the South occurred in 1862, when, upon receiving word that his brother George had been wounded in battle, Whitman traveled south, reaching the army field hospital at Falmouth, Virginia, just after the Battle of Fredericksburg in September. Upon finding his brother relatively well, he stayed with him for a week, then moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a job as clerk at the army paymaster's office. Later, he would work for the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, and later still, the Attorney General's Office, remaining in Washington until he suffered from a stroke in 1873. But living in the South, and the experience of the Civil War itself, would change Whitman's opinion of the South in general. No longer would he speak in his poetry of the mystical, Spanish moss-laden place of his earlier imaginative poetry. The realities of the war, and the South's role in it, would alter his stereotypes, and would perhaps give him a more realistic, more critical view of the region. However, in the poems included in "Drum-Taps," Whitman makes a great effort to include the South in his lamentations so as to heal the wounds left by the war. For instance, in "To the Leaven'd Soil They Trod," the terminal poem to "Drum-Taps," Whitman ends the poem with the statement that while the North would always nourish him, it is the hot sun of the South that is to "fully ripen" his songs. In many of the "Drum-Taps" poems, the South is evoked as having been just as brave, just as honorable, and just as devastated by the war as the North. And yet, the South Whitman describes is far more realistic, far more accurately drawn than his earlier descriptions. The enormity of the landscape and the problems facing the South are depicted especially in the poem "The Return of the Heroes," printed in the "Autumn Rivulets" section of Leaves of Grass. Here Whitman celebrates the returning armies and their ability to dissolve and once again turn their energies to planting crops, running farms and industries, producing the fruits of democracy.

But while it is true that Whitman's "Drum-Taps" sought to heal the wounds of the Civil War, and while it is true that Whitman depicted the South in these poems immediately following the Civil War in a particularly magnanimous fashion, the poems written several years later, in the early 1870s, were not as generous or forgiving. In his poem "Virginia—The West," first printed in the March 1872 issue of The Kansas Magazine and later added to Drum-Taps in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman refers to Virginia, and by extension the South in general, as "the noble sire fallen on evil days." The irony for Whitman was that Virginia had been so instrumental in forming the very democracy it was now seeking to dissolve. His tone in the poem could be described as bitter, even satiric, especially when he describes Washington—for Whitman the very image of the Union—as having been provided by Virginia and reminds us that the Confederate soldiers who attacked the Union were also partly provided by Virginia.

But nowhere do Whitman's feelings for the South take on a more bitter tone than in the poem "This Dust Was Once the Man," first printed in the 1871 Passage to India, later added to the "Memories of President Lincoln" section of the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. In this poem, Whitman laments the death of Lincoln, whom he describes as the man who saved the Union "[a]gainst the foulest crime in history known in any land or age," referring, of course, to the secession. Despite his earlier romanticized view of the South, and despite his magnanimity just after the Civil War, Whitman's view of the South was more emotional and bitter after the war and after the death of Lincoln.

Bibliography

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

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP. 1960–1962.

Binns, Henry Bryan. A Life of Walt Whitman. London: Methuen, 1905.

Hudgins, Andrew. "Walt Whitman and the South." Southern Literary Journal 15 (1982): 91–100.

Kolb, Deborah S. "Walt Whitman and the South." Walt Whitman Review 22 (1976): 3–14.

Schyberg, Frederik. Walt Whitman. Trans. Evie Allison Allen. New York: Columbia UP, 1951.


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