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Books: American Vision

7 minute read

WALT WHITMAN — Henry Seidel Canby—Houghfon Mifflm ($3.75).

By the time of the Battle of the Wilderness (1864), Walt Whitman had been working in the hospitals of Washington for more than a year, a familiar figure by this time, tall, red-faced, hairy as a buffalo, moving gently and capably through the 50 one-story sheds that, because of disease, intrigue, and what went on inside them, were more dangerous to the wounded than any battlefield on earth.

He watched the bearers bring in a boy who groaned as they carried him to the hospital gates and who, by the time they stopped to examine him, was dead. He was unknown; there was nothing on his clothing nor anyone with him to identify him.

He was one of the thousands, and of him Whitman said: “I could not keep the tears out of my eyes.” Statesman of the Intellect. During that time Whitman was subjecting his prophetic and poetic vision to a more intense test than any of which literary history has knowledge. Few poets of that age considered their verse mere ornaments of daily existence; they were rather generals and statesmen of the intellect and emotions whose creations had a tangible, profitable and practical application to ordinary life. Yet even among them Whitman was exceptional; he alone insisted that he knew what America was for, why it had been founded, why it had developed as it had, and what its future should be.

With a fervor unmatched since the days of the Old Testament prophets, he went further and insisted that if his vision were followed it would bring victory, and with victory an end of human unhappiness when “all these hearts as of fretted chil dren shall be sooth’d.”; The vision began to take form at the meeting point of life & death. The hospitals were halls of agony. Walking through them, visitors fainted. The men who had beaten back Pickett at Gettysburg and been burned when the caissons exploded at Chancellorsville here faced a more deadly menace than rebel marksmen. Whit man brought them oranges, lemons and sugar for lemonade; tobacco, and money.

He read to them — never his own poetry.

Through the years that reeled and trembled beneath him, when it seemed to him that no cause was being fought for and he was horrified and disgusted at the mutual butchery in the vast slaughterhouse of war, he came to know the Northern soldiers, probably better than any man alive.

Death & Transfigurations. In his rage against the prewar politicians he had dreamed of plain American workmen ending machine politics and voting for some “heroic, shrewd, full-informed, healthy-bodied, middleaged, beard-faced American blacksmith,” who would cross the Alleghenies and march into Washington. Now it seemed to him that America lay in the hospital, feeble, bloody and bandaged. He had thought to beat the alarm and urge relentless war; he found himself soothing the wounded or silently watching the dead. He could no longer endure the poppy-show goddesses and the pretty blue and gold interior of the Capitol because he was filled from top to toe with scenes and thoughts of the hospitals. He was proud when the doctors told him he had saved many lives. With an air of redis covering something that he had always known, and finding new confirmation for a faith that he had never lost, he wrote that the American soldier is full of affection and the yearning for affection. In the deep despair of the Wilderness campaigns he wrote to his mother that of the many he had seen die, he had not seen or heard of one who met death with terror. He knew that he would treat wounded Southern soldiers as gently. The faces of the dead were transfigured. He stepped out of his tent one grey, dim daybreak, and walked in the cool fresh air to the hospital tent, uncovering the features of three of the dead — an elderly man, gaunt and grim, a young boy, and a third —Young man 7 think I know you — 7 think this face is the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Antietam of the Spirit. The Walt Whitman who emerges from the 381 pages of Dr. Henry Seidel Canby’s biography differs from the good grey poet whom Americans have come to know. A competent, exact, professorial volume, in which each of the 31 chapters is neatly wound up and concluded, and the questions of Whitman’s career — the irrelevant charges of homosexuality or of American fascism —are answered with the sharpness of a professor putting students in their place, Walt Whitman is a valuable work that primarily lacks the spontaneity and boldness of Whitman himself. The good it does is to rescue Whitman from the vagabonds and literary celebrators of the Common Man, and from the authors of the hard-boiled school who claim him as their parent. He was one of the leading American editors, with a chance of becoming one of the greatest of them, when he turned to the writing of poetry. “He made articulate and gave an enduring life in the imagination to the American dream of a continent where the people should escape from the injustices of the past and establish a new and better life in which every one would share.” In the Antietam of the spirit that he fought in Washington, he saw a greater vision. Readers who turn from the close-packed pages of Dr. Canby’s biography to Leaves of Grass may find that the poems appear much simpler, and their development mysterious and haunting in its simplicity. Through the early poems Whit man seems to identify himself with the American earth, to which he attributed a value to the world that he could never make clear. As if answering the old question that the Indians asked at boundary disputes —I wonder if the ground has any thing to say? I wonder if the ground is listening to what is said? — he made him self the earth’s spokesman: who touched a leaf of American grass touched a man.

But even as he celebrated the richness and variety of the American earth—and no one ever spoke for it and its fruits with more passion—he seems to have known that this was not enough.”When I see where the East is greater than the West,” he wrote, “then I guess I shall see how spirit is greater than matter.”; Life & Transfiguration. What was the hidden prophetic intention that lay back of the miseries of men, behind their restless explorations and their never-happy hearts? It seemed to Whitman that his thought had at last spanned the globe, swimming in space and covered all over with visible power and beauty, and yet lying in teeming spiritual darkness beneath the high procession of the sun and moon and the countless stars above. America lay in the path of the circumnavigation of the earth.

In the vision of the future Walt Whitman saw that the true circling of the globe meant to the world far more than the discovery of America meant to Europe. It meant the end of the torment that came because men knew there were terrae incognitae of the heart as there were of the earth. Distance would be brought near, the lands welded together, the races, neighbors, be married and given in marriage, until all affection should be fully responded to, the cleavage between man and nature, spirit and matter, ended, and the cold, impassive, voiceless earth be justified.

Wandering, yearning, curious, with feverish questions, with the sad, incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and Whither 0 mocking life?, the generations since Adam had searched for this fulfillment. The voyage of the mind’s return to reason’s early paradise, “to realms of budding bibles,” to innocent intuitions, to the Garden of Eden where man would be again at peace with fair creation—this was the secret striving that lay back of the conquest of Alexander, the travels of Marco Polo and the blessed voyages of Columbus. The American earth was sacred not in itself but because it formed the bridge to the East and lay on the road to Paradise.

“Lo, soul,” said the heartbroken old man, “seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?”

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