cover image The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War

The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War

Roy Morris, JR.. Oxford University Press, USA, $25 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-19-512482-8

Since the 1980s--when scholars such as Michael Moon and Robert K. Martin reinvigorated Walt Whitman scholarship by queering it--the poet has inspired something of a literary cottage industry. Now Morris takes Whitman scholarship in a captivating new direction. In this study, the first complete account of the poet's Civil War years, Morris (Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company) shows how the War Between the States changed Whitman as a man and a poet. Indeed, in Morris's rendering, Whitman becomes a kind of metaphor for the country itself, a nearly transcendental signifier of American-style democracy and sexual freedom (though he was rather more ambivalent concerning the place of the ""African"" in American society). Whitman was, the author argues, depressed and adrift in New York's bohemia before the war; suffering from writer's block regarding his poetry, he occupied himself with journalistic hackwork. But when his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman found a cause that revived his sense of purpose: he spent three years visiting tens of thousands of wounded soldiers in and around Washington, D.C.--and by the end of the war, he had become ""the good gray poet,"" a larger-than-life figure Morris calls ""almost mystical."" The war, as Whitman himself acknowledged, ""saved"" him. His wartime experience inspired some of his best work, including the masterpiece ""When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."" The postwar years also engendered a deep despair, however. Fearful that the nation had forgotten its soldiers in the heady days of the Gilded Age, the poet attacked ""the post-war climate of graft and malaise."" However despondent, Whitman produced important writing after the dust had cleared. The Better Angel enriches our understanding of his subsequent life and work. (June)