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Walt Whitman to James Redpath, 21 October 1863

Dear friend,

My idea is a book of the time, worthy the time—something considerably beyond mere hospital sketches—a book for sale perhaps in a larger American market—the premises or skeleton memoranda of incidents, persons, places, sights, the past year (mostly jotted down either on the spot or in the spirit of seeing or hearing what is narrated)1—(I left New York early last December, & have been around in the front2 or here ever since)—full of interest I surely think—in some respects somewhat a combination in handling of the Old French Memoires, & my own personality (things seen through my eyes, & what my vision brings)—a book full enough of mosaic, but all fused to one comprehensive thing—one of the drifts is to push forward the very big & needed truth, that our national military system needs shifting, revolutionizing & made to tally with democracy, the people3—The officers should almost invariably rise from the ranks—there is an absolute want of democratic spirit in the present system & officers—it is the feudal spirit exclusively—nearly the entire capacity, keenness & courage of our army are in the ranks—(what has been done has been unavoidable so far, but the time has arrived to discuss the change)—

I have much to say of the hospitals, the immense national hospitals—in them too most radical changes of premises are demanded—(the air, the spirit of a thing is every thing, the details follow & adjust themselves). I have many hospital incidents, [that] will take with the general reader—I ventilate my general democracy with details very largely & with reference to the future—bringing in persons, the President, Seward4, Congress, the Capitol, Washington City, many of the actors of the drama—have something to say of the great trunk America, the West &c &c—do not hesitate to diffuse myself—the book is very rapid—is a book that can be read by the five or ten minutes at (being full of small parts, pieces, paragraphs with their dates, incidents &c)—I should think two or three thousand sale ought to be certainly depended on here in hospitals in Washington, among departments &c—

My idea is a book of handy size & form, 16 mo or smallish 12 mo, first rate paper (this last indispensable), ordinary binding, strongly stitched, to cost including copyright not more than 35 or 40cts or there-abouts​ to make, to retail for a dollar. It should be got out immediately. I think an edition, elegantly bound, might be pushed off for books for presents &c for the holidays, if advertised for that purpose. It would be very appropriate. I think it a book that would please women. I should expect it to be popular with the trade.

Of course I propose the affair to you publisherially as something to invest in, to make out of (for both of us)—I take it it would be a very handsome speculation. Only it is to be done while the thing is warm, namely at once. I have been & am in the midst of these things, I feel myself full of them, & I know the people generally now are too (far more than they know,) & would readily absorb & understand my mem[oranda]. Wherefore let us make & publish the book, & out with it so as to have it for sale by middle or 20th of November.5

James Redpath (1833–1891), an antislavery activist, journalist, and longtime friend of Whitman, was the author of The Public Life of Capt. John Brown (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), a correspondent for the New York Tribune during the war, and the originator of the "Lyceum" lectures. He met Whitman in Boston in 1860, and he remained an enthusiastic admirer; see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, January 4, 1889. He concluded his first letter to Whitman on June 25, 1860: "I love you, Walt! A conquering Brigade will ere long march to the music of your barbaric jawp." Redpath became managing editor of The North American Review in 1886. See also Charles F. Horner, The Life of James Redpath and the Development of the Modern Lyceum, (New York: Barse & Hopkins, 1926); John R. McKivigan, Forgotten Firebrand: James Redpath and the Making of Nineteenth-Century America, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008); and J.R. LeMaster, "Redpath, James [1833–1891]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. Whitman probably chose Redpath as the publisher of his proposed book because earlier in the year he had printed Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches, which relates the experiences of Tribulation Periwinkle in a military hospital in Georgetown. (Periwinkle, actually the author, had expected to go to Armory Square Hospital, but at the last minute was sent to "Hurly-burly House.") In his reply on October 28, 1863, Redpath said that there was "a lion in the way—$. I could easily publish a small Book, but the one you propose...implies an expenditure that may be beyond my means." Whitman's proposal was not to be realized until the publication of Memoranda During the War. Accompanying Whitman's draft letter is his sketch of the title page. An editor fully sympathizes with Traubel's remark (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953], 4:416) when he received this letter from Whitman: "It made me sweat to look at it." It is a maze of interlineations. [back]
  • 2. Once again Whitman overstated his involvement in the war. [back]
  • 3. In his "Notebook: September–October, 1863," Whitman made this entry on September 23: "Talk with Ben in Ward A about tyrannous and unnecessary exposure of the soldiers—how many officers there are who dare not go into engagements nor even out on picket with their men, for fear of their lives from their own men—the 8th N Y Cav Col Davis, (killed afterward) who . . . made the poor sick men (sick with diarrhea) dismount & mount 13 times to make them do it in military style—I have seen not a single officer that seemed to know American men" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). [back]
  • 4. William Henry Seward (1801–1872) was secretary of state from 1861 to 1869 under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. [back]
  • 5. The letter is endorsed, "letter to Redpath about | Memoranda of a Year | (publisher's announcement) | sent Oct 21 '63." [back]
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