Wednesday, May 13, 2009

`Yet Some of Them Did Rise and Rise'

A reader reasonably asks of Tuesday’s post, “Why isn't Whitman's mother mentioned? Who was she descended from?” The answer is misogyny-free: I was striving for brevity and wished to avoid “housewife” or “homemaker.” Like her husband, Louisa Van Velsor descended from Dutch forebears who settled on Long Island in the 17th century. Robert Roper in Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brother in the Civil War (2008) gives a more fleshed-out response:

“His [George Whitman’s, Walt’s brother] letters home to his mother – a poorly educated, stay-at-home woman whom Whitman biographers have woefully mischaracterized as ignorant, incurious, and `almost illiterate’ – are peppered with military terms of art that George, himself, must only recently have learned. The old mother back in her Brooklyn kitchen understood everything – this was the first fact of the Whitman family – Mrs. Whitman’s power of understanding – and the reason why George addressed his detailed reflections on military strategy, his confessions of fear, his exaltation in victory, when he and his comrades did `terrible execution’ upon the bodies of their enemy, to her.”

My emphasis at the start of Tuesday’s post was on the frequency of mental illness among Whitman’s siblings, in order to emphasize the sheer unlikelihood of Whitman’s brilliance as a poet. Roper’s book usefully focused on the complexities of the Whitman family:

“The Whitmans of Brooklyn were a troubled, brilliant, poor, aspiring, declining, woefully afflicted, remarkably successful clan. The darkest terrors of the nineteenth century shadowed their hearth. Madness touched several of their number, and congenital disorders and incurable infections harrowed them. Yet some of them did rise and rise.”

The Whitmans, in other words, resembled many families of their time and ours, but for the genius in their midst. Roper calls Walt “America’s most brilliant poet, author of the most influential book of poetry in English of the last century and a half,” but devotes much time to George, Walt’s junior by a decade. Soon after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, George joined the local militia and enlisted in the Fifty-first New York Volunteers. Walt’s calling as a nurse to sick and wounded soldiers started with his journey to Falmouth, Va., after the Battle of Fredericksburg, where George was wounded. George also served at New Bern, Antietam, Second Bull Run, the Wilderness, and Petersburg, and left the army a brevetted lieutenant colonel. Roper’s book opens during the Battle of Antietam, on the eve of the bloodiest day in American history:

“The scent of pennyroyal, crushed by soldiers’ shoes, remained intense as a false twilight came. A large force of Union troops had been stymied all day by rebels holding the high ground, and as the sun set early behind the wooded Maryland ridge, a shadowy time of error and anxiety arrived.”

Roper can write, and Now the Drum of War (the title is from the closing lines of Walt’s “City of Ships”) makes vivid a story we thought we knew well. He revivifies another brother, Thomas Jefferson “Jeff” Whitman, who had a self-taught gift for mathematics and went on to an engineering career, helping to develop the water and sanitation systems in Brooklyn and Saint Louis. Roper follows every member of the Whitman family, and the later years, the illnesses and deaths, make for doleful reading. Whitman experienced the death of his 78-year-old mother in 1873 as, in Roper’s words, “the one loss never to be gotten over.” In a footnote Roper writes:

“Mrs. Whitman died after several weeks of progressive weakening…Hearing that she had taken a turn for the worse, Walt traveled to Camden by train and was with her for her last three days. A friend of the family’s, Helen E. Price, recalled the funeral in George’s house in a newspaper article published in 1919: `On taking my seat among [the mourners], I noticed a curious thumping at intervals that made the floor vibrate beneath my feet. I was so absorbed in my own grief that at first I was hardly conscious of it. I finally left my chair, and going to [another room]…I saw the poet all alone by the side of his mother’s coffin. He was bent over the side of his cane, both hands clasped upon it, and from time to time he would lift it and bring it down with a heavy thud on the floor.’”

Eight years after his mother’s death Whitman published Songs of Parting, which includes “As at Thy Portals Also Death,” not mentioned by Roper. The poem recreates the coffin scene described by Price, minus the cane, and is disturbingly intimate, even by Whitman’s standards:

“As at thy portals also death,
Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds,
To memories of my mother, to the divine blending, maternity,
To her, buried and gone, yet buried not, gone not from me,
(I see again the calm benignant face fresh and beautiful still,
I sit by the form in the coffin,
I kiss and kiss convulsively again the sweet old lips, the cheeks, the closed eyes in the coffin;)
To her, the ideal woman, practical, spiritual, of all of earth, life, love, to me the best,
I grave a monumental line, before I go, amid these songs,
And set a tombstone here.”


William A. Sigler said...

That last part reminds me of an incident at a lecture I once heard Borges give, in which some audience member made this big show of what a desecration it was to Whitman's memory the level of toxic waste in Camden, New Jersey, where he was buried. Without so much as a furrowed brow at this complete interruption of his thought, Borges said with exquisite innocence "but surely you are mistaken, Whitman is not buried in Camden, New Jersey, he's buried in the hearts and minds of those who read him."

Fran Manushkin said...

Thanks so much! This is a wonderful addition. I would've written earlier today but I've been in techie hell, something no Whitman ever encountered, or did they? Did the wireless exist? I'll have to look it up. said...

...a lecture I once heard Borges giveLucky you!