Sunday, March 13, 2005


Memo Re: War

The LA Times reviews OUP's annotated reissue of Walt Whitman's all-too-timely journals Memoranda During the War:

Walt Whitman, the then-obscure 40-ish author of an eccentric collection of poems called "Leaves of Grass," who scribbled his "few stray glimpses" of these forgotten men into blood-spattered notebooks during his daily rounds. These "impromptu jottings" — descriptions of soldiers' last breaths; their recoveries; their requests for toothbrushes, pickles, rice pudding, fresh underwear, a good book, a pen, an ice cream treat, a letter to be sent home — later became "Memoranda During the War," a slim volume that Whitman published in a private edition in 1876 and later folded into the diary-like "Specimen Days."

Whitman's prose work is rarely introduced to students anymore, aside from his introduction to Leaves of Grass -- and that is hardly prose at all -- but his collections of newspaper columns and the like are surprisingly engrossing. Frankly, the longer I read him, the more I find him better company in prose: it is there that he becomes less of a grandstanding and bombastic... well, poet.

Whitman could be an embarassingly jingoistic poet in his early outings. Perhaps he had second thoughts after, as the Times review notes, "Arriving near the Virginia battlefield, the first thing Whitman came upon was 'a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart.' " His experience of the field hospitals -- which he describes as "about nine hundred and ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory" -- might have had something to do with him eventually becoming less impressed with what a great big glorious country he lived in, and more with humanity itself.

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