Whitman’s America: Diction, Substance, and the Civil War

Walt Whitman is America. He is the lumber yard, raggedy new-born poet of his time that was heavily influenced by the changing definitions of America’s identity as a country. His poetry speaks of the American people who lived and walked the bustling streets — he watches them with hungry eyes and an honest pen. The substance for his poetry derives from the average man who drives America forward — the men (and women) who silently strive onward with their machinery. This is what Walt Whitman’s poetry is about: the progression of America and the everyday people who move that progression. It dwells on destruction as well, in particular, the Civil War. His words focus on age, death, machinery, and the individuals who walk around him. Whitman documents the people and the sounds through his poetry, therefore creating his own personal America that had not been seen before his writing. Those who worked in manual labor, such as carpenters and mechanics, were physically building America, and Whitman saw it all around him. He respected them and it reflects in his writings. The idea of “Whitman’s America” is prevalent throughout his poetry.

Published in 1860, Whitman’s famous poem I Hear America Signing begins with the powerful line, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear”(Poetry Foundation).With the implication that America is “singing,” Whitman perfectly describes the accelerating and positive mindset of America at this time. The Civil War would begin the next year, and yet, Whitman sees America stepping forward despite the political turmoil that exists in the midst of war. I imagine him to be high up somewhere, likely a lumber yard, listening to the voices

of the “mechanics, each one singing his [carol] as it should be blithe and strong.” Notice the word: blithe. Their song of pride is joyous and strong even though war is evident. Whitman could have believed that the coming war could actually have some positive aspects, such as the eradication of slavery. It is known that he had much disdain for the expansion of slavery, and the war could have been the solution to ending it — despite the death. The poem continuously gives examples of manual workers, such as carpenters and even mothers (who could have been considered manual laborers in the household), to show that something, whether a country or building, is being built and the people are joyous about it. It is American, but the definition of America soon changes with the Civil War.

The future destruction of the Civil War. The war allowed for either a progression or a regression.

The Civil War was a devastating event in the history of the United States. According to the national Civil War website, 620,000 people died over the course of the entire conflict. Whitman’s brother, George Washington Whitman, was wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Upon hearing this, Whitman decided to become a military nurse for the next three years where he would go on to save thousands of lives. His poem, Beat! Beat! Drums!, is the perfect poem to describe the hardships of the Civil War because of its punctuation and word choice. It begins with the line “Beat! Beat! Drums! — Blow! Bugles! Blow!” Even at the beginning of the poem, a reader can tell that it will be exciting, and even though the poem does not resonate any sound, he/she can understand that it is loud. Bugles and drums are typically used as military instruments, so it is safe to say that the drummers are of a militaristic nature. The exclamatory marks following each word emphasize the excitement the speaker is feeling, who is likely Whitman himself. Whitman writes that he wants the instruments to “burst like a ruthless force/ Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation/ Into the school where the scholar is studying.” First of all, the marching band is a symbol for the entire war. Wars are not usually fought at home, so the fact that the Civil War was in Americans’ backyards complicates things. If the war Civil War had been another war in some other place then it would have been easy to ignore. Since it was on American soil, the people could not ignore it if they wanted to.

Whitman goes on to write, “Leave not the bridegroom quiet — no happiness must he have now with his bride/ Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain.” These lines describe the intrusion the war had on peoples’ lives, but Whitman does not feel bad for the people. He is telling them that they need to pay attention to the war and understand what is going on. He is also telling them that they need to help the cause in some way, and that the war will happen either way. It would be impossible for the people to ignore the war because it was happening in their streets. Whitman could also be saying saying that war in general stops everything, even the growth of food, and there is nothing people can do about it.

Six years before the Civil War, Whitman wrote his famous collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass. Many historians and critics have argued that Leaves of Grass is the collection started true American literature. This is what Whitman wanted: to write a distinctive American epic. It opens with a wood engraving of him. He seems like a man that would ride a box car in the 1940's — he almost resembles Woody Guthrie.

The famous picture of Walt Whitman.
The title page for the original 1855 edition.

There is a famous poem titled Song of Myself that demonstrates an awakening for Whitman. He wrote the poem at a time when he had decided to become a full-time poet, after a period of odd jobs and struggles. Song of Myself represents a change for America as well because America did not have a poetical voice nor authority in the world. The country was still relatively young. There are two lines, “I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,/ Hoping to cease not till death” that are interesting because they they tangle Whitman and America together well. Whitman was thirty-seven years old, which is relatively young like America. He claims he was in perfect health. America too must have been in perfect health, even considering the Civil War was only in six years. Finally, Whitman writes that he was “hoping to cease not till death.” This line is interesting because it is claiming that you can “cease not” before death — you can essentially be a nobody. He wanted to be somebody the way America wanted to gain its footing as a global identity. Those two lines adequately describe the correlation between Whitman and America because they show that Whitman and America were one in the same; they were two pressing powers at one time.

Walt Whitman in a lumber yard with another man. The poet.

Walt Whitman is America; he is an American. He shaped himself during a time when America was shaping itself through manual labor and through a Civil War. Whitman found beauty in these things not necesarily because they were beautiful, but because he needed to illustrate the image of America. He needed to show what America was supposed to be, and in some ways, what it is to this day. America was being created by physical labor — not necessarily by the politics that people usually attribute to progression.

References:

Beat! Beat! Drums! read by Seth Hunter Perkins. Perf. Seth Hunter Perkins. Youtube, film. 2014.

I Hear America Singing read by Seth Hunter Perkins. Perf. Seth Hunter Perkins. Youtube, film. 2014

Whitman, Walt. “Beat! Beat! Drums!” www.poetryfoundation.org. 3 May 2015. Web.

Whitman, Walt. “I Hear America Singing.” www.poetryfoundation.org. 3 May 2015. Web.

Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of Grass: Song of Myself.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature 1 (2013): 1024–1025. Print.

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