During the 19th century, as the United States developed economically, many people broke family ties, some forever, and headed west or to sea where they could reinvent themselves. A notable exception was the Whitman family of Brooklyn. Walter Sr. was a master carpenter and engaged in building houses. There were nine children in all; at a time of high infant mortality, only one died in infancy. The best known today is the second oldest, Walt, who became perhaps the most original American poet of the century. But his youngest brothers—George, who distinguished himself as an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, and Jeff, who became one of the century's great engineers—were well-known and admired during their lifetimes. The entire family, and especially these three brothers, remained close throughout their lives.
Robert Roper, award-winning author of works of fiction and nonfiction, explores the brothers' relationship and, by extension, the many wounded Civil War soldiers Walt visited in hospitals in the superb Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War. Walt made more than 600 visits and claimed to have tended to 80,000 to 100,000 men in his role as a nurse, or, as he preferred, "visitor and consolatory." His close friend and biographer, John Burroughs, described him as a "great tender mother-man" at a time when most nurses were men. Walt wrote that it was a womanly, indeed a motherly, approach that was most helpful in the hospitals.
Roper shows in detail how crucial his relationship to his family was in this endeavor and in his development as a writer and poet. He also describes how the three Whitman brothers were skillful in dealing with other people, especially other men, good at personal politicking and winning their trust, while advancing their own self-interests. He shows how each brother was always alert to the needs of the others.
A key role in the family was played by their mother, Louisa, who remained Walt's most intimate correspondent until her death in 1873. After her husband's death in 1855, her sons, primarily Walt, were responsible for the family income. George, who led soldiers in 21 major battles and was in a Confederate prison camp toward the end of the war, also wrote letters to her that dealt with virtually every aspect of his experience. Roper strongly disagrees with those Whitman biographers who have portrayed her as ignorant and incurious; instead, he demonstrates her ability to understand and appreciate a wide range of experience.
This fine book has several focuses. First, it is a biography of a family, especially during the war years, told in great part with a judicious use of letters. Secondly, Roper details Walt's work in the hospitals and shows how he was able to write about it at a time when other gifted writers such as Mark Twain, Henry James and William Dean Howells did not write about the war at all. Roper is aware of Walt's limitations in this regard—he was a knowledgeable noncombatant but never saw a battle in progress and in writing of soldiers' experiences, he did not get into their complex feelings. And finally, Roper probes Whitman's thoughts about death, suffering and killing, among other subjects.
Roper's evocative narrative impressively conveys the life and times of one of America's greatest writers in a time of the nation's greatest crisis.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.