Monday, August 17, 2009

Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War by Robert Roper

As the American Civil War began, Walt Whitman was known by literate society of New York, New England, and Washington, D.C., but he could still walk the streets and woods mostly unrecognized, despite his height and great beard. Some of those walks would have been with or to see his male lovers, but he seems to have sought solitude often. He had published three editions of Leaves of Grass, written and edited for several newspapers, including one in New Orleans, met Emerson and Thoreau, and made a little money building houses in Brooklyn. In his early forties as the war began, he had his family much on his mind, according to Robert Roper in his book Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War.

Walt Whitman was the second of six brothers. He also had two sisters, one still at home in the early 1860s. His older brother Jesse was said to be the brightest, but he hit his head falling from a mast as a sailor; he suffered years of mental illness, sometimes in a hospital, but often kept in the Whitman home. During the war, Whitman's mother cared for this sometimes violent man, as well as his brother Andrew, dying from some uncertain disease (syphilis?) that mustered him out of the Union army, and his brother Edward, who was born with physical and mental disabilities. Also in the home were brother Jeff, who was struggling to find steady work as an engineer, Jeff's wife and two young daughters, and a family of unhappy renters, who had control of the only faucet. By 1863, the mood in the house was sometimes explosive.

In Now the Drum of War, Roper tells how the steady presence of Mother Whitman and the letters and money from the two brothers away from home supported the family. Brother George was with the New York 51st, a regiment that fought in many of the bloodiest battles of the war. News of his injury at an early stage of the conflict is what got Walt out of Brooklyn. Finding that his brother was hardly hurt, Walt returned from the front by way of Washington and discovered the many hospitals filled with war casualties could use a poet willing to sit with dying men. He remained there through most of the war, though he did take several important trips back to Brooklyn.

As you might guess, Now the Drum of War is not a standard birth-to-death biography. It fits in the more contemporary trend of slice-of-life or defining-moment biography. Because enough of the text is about the many Whitmans, especially George and Mother Whitman, it might also be shelved with family biographies, if a library has such as shelf. Still, Walt Whitman and his many-faceted personality is the central focus of this enjoyable book. Don't be surprised if reading it gives you the urge to write your mother.

Roper, Robert. Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War. Walker & Company, 2008. ISBN 9780802715531

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