|The poet was photographed by Mathew Brady around 1860, near the start of the Civil War.|
'I am large, I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman wrote in the poem "Song of Myself," describing his intimate connection to a teeming world - and intentionally warning biographers that the vastness of himself would not fit easily into any one book.
So it's to Robert Roper's credit that his biography, "Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War," focuses on Whitman's life as a poet, as the brother of a Union soldier, and as a self-appointed volunteer nursing wounded men who had left the bloody battlefields only to enter hospitals and face the amputations and other gruesome limitations of the era's medicine.
A novelist and nonfiction writer, Roper has produced a biography that is also impressively teeming, weaving in Whitman's siblings and his mother, quoting from their letters and presenting through their eyes Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., and the ravages of the war.
As for Whitman himself, he is shown as a journalist, a shameless self-promoter, a prodigious lover of young men and as the "rude bard of Brooklyn," as Roper calls him. And there is the Whitman who "[i]n the thousands of wounded and sick soldiers . . . had found at last a crowd that he could examine, caress, love, and heal in his own good time."
Louisa May Alcott appears in the book: She also worked nursing soldiers. And Roper relies on numerous Civil War books and accounts to tell a fuller story than he could have if he were only looking through Whitman's eyes.
Roper is often a cinematic writer, deftly shifting point of view to reveal telling physical details as well as large psychological ones. The book's compelling first sentence starts, "The scent of pennyroyal, crushed by soldiers' shoes, remained intense as a false twilight came." Roper shows Whitman visiting his brother George during the war, watching his brother go out on picket duty. The book tells of a battlefield that became a "slaughter pen," describes George's dire illness as a prisoner of war, and illuminates Whitman's writing about Abraham Lincoln's death.
Whitman was also trying to convert horror into poetry. But as Roper points out, making sense of war is daunting work. Whitman's efforts are collected in "Drum-Taps," poems that are praised by modern critics, but were branded at the time as an "offense against art" by Henry James - although he later relented. And even Roper argues that Whitman's war poems focus on "dead soldiers, silent soldiers, buried soldiers," failing to let the soldiers themselves cry out in agony or disgust about how cruelly their lives were spent.
But ultimately this book celebrates Whitman and his choice to stand so closely to the wreckage of war. It's a choice that resounds loudly in the present where war is still a grim fact, but where Americans tend to stand at greater distances, taking in only as much sanitized content as the news delivers, or even less.
At the end of "Song of Myself," Whitman writes:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles . . .
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Indeed, Whitman still waits in many places: in the verses of his poetry; in the constantly rediscovered past; and in the pages of Roper's book. It's well worth it to seek him there. A poet of teeming multitudes, Whitman still seems at his glorious best when he is out among crowds of people or crowds of readers.
Alyssa Haywoode is a freelance writer.