Walt Whitman in the Civil War

I worry that a book like THE BETTER ANGEL by Roy Morris Jr.  in 2000 would not get written today because Walt Whitman, despite nursing thousands of young, suffering soldiers in overfilled hospitals who fought a war that freed slaves, expressed what we consider today to be offensive (and ignorant) opinions about slaves.  

Racism as a word needs to go. Its meaning does not allow for any complexity of feeling or thought. It shuts down avenues of reconciliation and fails to deal with the deeper issues which are basic: human hatred and ignorance. Cain murdered his brother as one of the first acts in the Bible. Anyone with maturity and experience lies to themselves if they think they are above nursing hatreds. Tell me at least one time when this hatred based on jealousy, past wrongs or misunderstanding ever brought peace to anyone, yet still we run to our little groups and cast hateful looks and words at others.

To take the argument away from American race relations for a minute I’d like to use the example of the long animosity between England and Ireland. Depending on who you talk to, people will bring up various battles and laws and wrongs reaching back a thousand years. Some people carry the bitterness of a lost battle between men generations ago into their daily lives today with no positive results.

How as honest humans can we not admit that we all have ingrained hierarchies of human importance? Some cheer for new late-term abortion laws while others like myself are sickened at the callousness and laughter on the faces of those signing infanticide into practice. Others decry borders and the mistreatment of foreigners. The hypocrisy of humanity is sickening. Yet I must remind myself that I am part of humanity.

I can be incredibly callous to suffering. I can make harsh and ignorant judgments based on race, class, religion and even the motives my husband has for doing something I don’t understand or like.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
 Matthew 7:3

I briefly entered the fray of blaming my insecurities and deficiencies on gender, genealogy and religion. Guess where it got me — nowhere.

People don’t like to hear it (I didn’t want to hear it until my sins could be hidden no longer) but seeking revenge or pity or money won’t cure bitterness. Only forgiveness does. People don’t like being humbled. It goes against the self-esteem religion. It goes against the I’m a star and you need to respect and idolize me religion.

What Jesus said is still as counter cultural and revolutionary today as it was two thousand years ago:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Be careful not to skim over these words. They are the keys to a life worth living.

Walt Whitman just before the Civil War was a man without a cause. He rode the city streets by day and spent the nights drinking and carousing. He was depressed.

His brother enlisted in the army at the start of the war. Walt left in search of him when he was hospitalized months later. He had planned to stay only briefly until he encountered the sick and dying young boys — thousands of them — in places we would never send our dogs to get well today.

Cynics might say Walt stayed because he had always had affectionate feelings toward younger men and maybe there is some truth to that, but anyone who thinks they are 100% altruistic is again living under serious delusion.

Forgotten Veterans

The many forgotten soldiers with no family to advocate for them adored Walt’s visits and the man himself. Evidenced by the letters he received late in life from grateful veterans, they believed without his small kindnesses they would not have survived the disease-ridden and terrifying hospitals.

As some of you may remember, I’m researching my young relatives who fought and died for the Union. Two died of disease early on but one was injured at Second Bull Run and spent months in hospital before being discharged only to enlist again and die a few days before Appomattox. Every wrecked young man  Walt showed special kindness to could have been someone very much like my cousin Waldo who enlisted when he was only fifteen.

The Civil War Dead

We so often think in terms of big numbers and so little do we ponder and appreciate the individuals whose tiny lives flickered so briefly. Their hopes, their mannerisms, the things that made them laugh and cry — Walt saw to those things and loved the boys “like father, like mother, like lover and friend.” He saw these suffering boys made in the image of God — fearfully and wonderfully made — and mourned for them and with them. He brought ice cream on hot days when no one wanted to be in the stinking tents of human waste and rotting flesh.

Walt wrote once about Private John A. Holmes,  a man I assume most of us have never heard of. Like 54 percent of the Union soldiers and 99 percent of the Confederates, Holmes was stricken with diarrhea — “a disease that would claim the lives of nearly one hundred thousand men.”

After weeks in camp Holmes was sent by steamer to Washington. On the boat he was too weak to open his bag to pull out a blanket. When a crew member refused to help him, Holmes was forced to sleep exposed to the elements with chills and fever. At the Washington hospital he was stripped naked and scrubbed under a cold shower until he fainted in the nurses’ arms.

For days he suffered in anonymity and hopelessness until Whitman noticed the poor boy’s look of despair when he stopped to make some encouraging remark.

“‘I saw as I looked that it was a case of administering to the affection first, and other nourishment and medicines afterward … I sat down with him without any fuss … wrote a letter to his folks … and gave him some small gifts and told him I would come again soon.’

“Holmes said he would like to buy a glass of milk from the woman who peddled it in the wards and Whitman gave him a little change. The young man immediately burst into tears.”

John Holmes credited Walt’s first visit that day with saving his life. I like to think that my cousin Waldo had someone beside him during the 24 hour period between receiving his mortal gunshot wound to the thigh and the time he spent suffering in the hospital before he died. On reenlisting he had not gone back to the regiment from Cortland, NY (his home) so I have no idea if he had any close friends near by in the end. He was only 18 or 19 when he died. He was buried on a plantation far from home as his parents celebrated Lee’s surrender.

Walt Whitman considered his Civil War days to be the most important of his life.

His collection of poems from that time are his best. Long after the country moved on and long after the thousands of young men  were buried and forgotten by all but genealogists,  Whitman’s poems live on as a testimony to the uncomplaining bravery and suffering of a generation of young men and their families.

THE BETTER ANGEL Walt Whitman in the Civil War is a book to inspire the most calloused heart. How many of us give so freely of ourselves as Whitman did? He’s always been my favorite poet, but now he is one of my favorite men.

A Twilight Song by Walt Whitman

As I sit in twilight late alone by the flickering oak-flame,
Musing on long-pass’d war-scenes—of the countless buried unknown
soldiers,
Of the vacant names, as unindented air’s and sea’s—the unreturn’d,
The brief truce after battle, with grim burial-squads, and the
deep-fill’d trenches
Of gather’d from dead all America, North, South, East, West, whence
they came up,
From wooded Maine, New-England’s farms, from fertile Pennsylvania,
Illinois, Ohio,
From the measureless West, Virginia, the South, the Carolinas, Texas,
(Even here in my room-shadows and half-lights in the noiseless
flickering flames,
Again I see the stalwart ranks on-filing, rising—I hear the
rhythmic tramp of the armies;)
You million unwrit names all, all—you dark bequest from all the war,
A special verse for you—a flash of duty long neglected—your mystic
roll strangely gather’d here,
Each name recall’d by me from out the darkness and death’s ashes,
Henceforth to be, deep, deep within my heart recording, for many
future year,
Your mystic roll entire of unknown names, or North or South,
Embalm’d with love in this twilight song.

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DRUM TAPS by Walt Whitman

Task of a Poet

“To hear never-heard sounds,
To see never-seen colors and shapes,
To try to understand the imperceptible
Power pervading the world;
To fly and find pure ethereal substances
That are not of matter
But of that invisible soul pervading reality.
To hear another soul and to whisper to another soul;
To be a lantern in the darkness
Or an umbrella in a stormy day;
To feel much more than know.
To be the eyes of an eagle, slope of a mountain;
To be a wave understanding the influence of the moon;
To be a tree and read the memory of the leaves;
To be an insignificant pedestrian on the streets
Of crazy cities watching, watching, and watching.
To be a smile on the face of a woman
And shine in her memory
As a moment saved without planning.”

DEJAN STOJANOVIC

Painting: Venus Veiling Pandora by Charles Courtney Curran

Family Histories: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

This week Luanne Castle discusses how the exploration of family history has enriched her creative life:

By combining a passion for family history with my creative writing, I felt able to—for a brief moment—inhabit the lives of women and men from previous generations and imagine how their stories felt to them.

Family history as done by genealogy buffs only interested in filling in the dates and places of lineal ancestors miss the point. Everybody has ancestors. What becomes fascinating is that by recreating and listening to the stories of previous generations, we learn from the experiences of those who have lived on Earth before us.

Family history is a messy, complicated, and very loose collection of stories bound together with overlaps and gaps and sharing. Those are all the reasons I love it.

And all the reasons that I keep picking at the loose threads, following clues left in documents and photographs, and searching for information to fill in the empty stretches of time—or so it can appear from this angle—of the people who have come before me.

Researching family history is never ending. I’ve been at this for a long time. New information can refine, surprise, or alter what I think I already know. As a writer, this makes my path difficult. There is no moment where I can say to myself, “OK, my research is done. Now I can write.”

Therefore, research has to be done for the sake of the hunt, the rewards fate doles out to me, and an appreciation for the continuous process. In this way, Kin Types is the slim fruit of years of difficult “gardening,” but not the final fruit or the final say.

The following prose poem from Kin Types explores a moment in the life of my great-great-grandfather’s sister, Jennie DeKorn Culver, the custody battle during her divorce.

What Came Between A Woman and Her Duties

14 May 1897

On this Friday, in our fair city of Kalamazoo, Recreation Park refreshment proprietor, John Culver, has applied to the Circuit Court to gain custody of his two young daughters from his divorced wife. The girls currently reside in the Children’s Home. They were accompanied to court by Miss Bradley, the matron of the home.

Mrs. Culver, the divorcée, and the children were represented by J. W. Adams. The father was represented by F.E. Knappen.  Mrs. Culver, pale and stern-looking, wore a shirtwaist with tightly ruched collar and generous mutton sleeves. The strain of her situation shows clearly on her visage. In the past, Mrs. Culver has been aided and abetted by her female friends in the art of painting, as an article of 6 February 1895 in this very daily can attest.

A large number of friends of both parties were in the courtroom and heard emotional pleadings on both sides. Judge Buck ascertained that Mrs. Culver is engaged in the pursuit of an honest living at this time and so ordered that the children remain in the mother’s care. She was given six months to bring them home from the orphanage or they will go into the care of their father and his mother. Let us hope that Mrs. Culver can stay away from the easel.

I used articles from the Kalamazoo Gazette, as well as legal documents, to recreate Jennie’s fight for custody of her two daughters. The only documentation I can find that Jennie was an artist is a newspaper article commemorating the gift of an easel to Jennie during the term of her marriage by her female friends.

Finishing Line Press has published my chapbook, Kin Types, a collection of lyric poetry, prose poems, and flash nonfiction that interprets the lives of some forgotten women in history—my own ancestors.

 Kin Types can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Finishing Line Press.

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BIO

luanne-headshotLuanne has been a Fellow at the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside. She studied English, history, and creative writing at UCR (PhD); Western Michigan University (MFA); and the Stanford University writing certificate program. She taught college English for fifteen years. Her scholarly work has been published in academic journals, and she contributed to Twice-Told Children’s Tales: The Influence of Childhood Reading on Writers for Adults, edited by Betty Greenway. Luanne is an amateur genealogist and publishes some of her family history research on the blog thefamilykalamazoo.com.

Winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, Doll God, Luanne Castle’s first collection of poetry, was published by Aldrich Press. Luanne’s poetry and prose have appeared in Phoebe, Six Hens, Story Shack, The Antigonish Review, Crack the SpineGristTABRiver TeethLunch TicketThe Review Review, and many other journals. Luanne’s 2017 chapbook Kin Types, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, was a semi-finalist in the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Contest.

She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Her heart belongs to her six cats and the homeless cats at the animal shelter where she volunteers.

Luanne’s sites: THE FAMILY KALAMAZOO

WRITERSITE

LUANNE CASTLE: WRITER AND POET

 

 

Please come by next Sunday!

forget me not promo

A Mother Who Read to Me

mother and daughter

The Reading Mother

by

Strickland Gillilan

I had a mother who read to me
Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea,
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth,
“Blackbirds” stowed in the hold beneath.

I had a Mother who read me lays
Of ancient and gallant and golden days;
Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,
Which every boy has a right to know.

I had a Mother who read me tales
Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,
True to his trust till his tragic death,
Faithfulness blent with his final breath.

I had a Mother who read me the things
That wholesome life to the boy heart brings–
Stories that stir with an upward touch,
Oh, that each mother of boys were such!

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be–
I had a Mother who read to me.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to those the fault,
If memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where, through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault,
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

–Thomas Gray.

waves

Into the dusk of the East,
Gray with the coming of night,
This may we know at least–
After the night comes light!
Over the mariners’ graves,
Grim in the depths below,
Buoyantly breasting the waves,
Into the East we go.

On to a distant strand,
Wonderful, far, unseen,
On to a stranger land,
Skimming the seas between;
On through the days and nights,
Hope in each sailor’s breast,
On till the harbor lights
Flash on the shores of rest!

J. H. Jowett.

***featured images by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

 

 

Poet, Novelist, Diplomat & Friend: Henry van Dyke

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Once upon a time there lived on a Saratoga hillside surrounded by lakes a tragic little family of wealth and privilege. Spencer and Katrina Trask lost every child they ever produced, but gathered countless friends, many of whom were artists and poets drawn to the couple’s generosity and toughness in the face of Job-like losses, year after sad year.

Portrait_of_Henry_van_DykeHenry van Dyke was one such friend who wrote the following inscription for Katrina Trask’s garden sundial dedicated to her four dead children:

“Time is
Too slow for those who Wait,
Too swift for those who Fear,
Too long for those who Grieve,
Too short for those who Rejoice,
But for those who Love,
Time is not.”

“Dr. van Dyke is the kind of a friend to have when one is up against a difficult problem. He will take trouble, days and nights of trouble, if it is for somebody else or for some cause he is interested in.” Helen Keller said of him.

“I’m not an optimist. There’s too much evil in the world and in me. Nor am I a pessimist; there is too much good in the world and in God. So I am just a meliorist, believing that He wills to make the world better, and trying to do my bit to help and wishing that it were more.” Wikipedia

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Fountain on the Trask Estate

There was once a time in America when it was quite fashionable (even among the intellectual elites) to see something good in America. Does this mean there was nothing bad? Surely not, but van Dyke’s poem always tickles my fancy especially when children recite it in schools that still teach that America is a pretty great place to be:

AMERICA FOR ME

‘Tis fine to see the Old World, and travel up and down
Among the famous palaces and cities of renown,
To admire the crumbly castles and the statues of the kings,—
But now I think I’ve had enough of antiquated things.

           So it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be,
In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars!

Oh, London is a man’s town, there’s power in the air;
And Paris is a woman’s town, with flowers in her hair;
And it’s sweet to dream in Venice, and it’s great to study Rome;
But when it comes to living there is no place like home.

I like the German fir-woods, in green battalions drilled;
I like the gardens of Versailles with flashing fountains filled;
But, oh, to take your hand, my dear, and ramble for a day
In the friendly western woodland where Nature has her way!

I know that Europe’s wonderful, yet something seems to lack:
The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back.
But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free,—
We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.

           Oh, it’s home again, and home again, America for me!
I want a ship that’s westward bound to plough the rolling sea,
To the bléssed Land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars

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At a junk yard in America

Poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar

220px-Paul_Laurence_Dunbar_circa_1890

He Had His Dream

He had his dream, and all through life,
Worked up to it through toil and strife.
Afloat fore’er before his eyes,
It colored for him all his skies:
The storm-cloud dark
Above his bark,
The calm and listless vault of blue
Took on its hopeful hue,
It tinctured every passing beam –
He had his dream.

He labored hard and failed at last,
His sails too weak to bear the blast,
The raging tempests tore away
And sent his beating bark astray.
But what cared he
For wind or sea!
He said, ‘The tempest will be short,
My bark will come to port.’
He saw through every cloud a gleam –
He had his dream.

 

Paul’s mother had a dream too. An ex-slave, she taught herself to read just so she could teach young Paul. Paul was a stellar student and popular at his all-white high school in Ohio where he was elected president of the high school literary society. Mother’s dream was to send Paul to law school but lack of funds prevented it.   (My son really wanted to live on campus at NYU and assumed he’d go to Columbia Law School–we all have our dreams, don’t we?). Finances are a pain.

Paul ended up an elevator operator and though a good poet, he wasn’t very good with money and always ended up in debt. People liked his work, but poetry can’t always pay the bills.

Paul met a nice girl and married, but sadly three years later was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The doctor recommended whiskey to alleviate  the symptoms of the disease. We all know how this ends, don’t we? His depression and growing dependence on alcohol caused trouble between him and wifey. She left him and Paul died a destitute alcoholic.