Whitman: Convulsiveness

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

The keyword, the crypt-word, of Whitman’s Civil War prose, so far as I can see, is “convulsiveness.” It comes toward the end of memoranda that he puts at the center of his autobiography, Specimen Days. In the original Memoranda During the War, the section shows up in an introduction, warning the reader of the “convulsive” character and condition of the writing to come. Here is the passage, in total [from the UVA e-text of Memoranda]:

DURING the Union War I commenced at the close of 1862, and continued steadily through ’63, ’64 and ’65, to visit the sick and wounded of the Army, both on the field and in the Hospitals in and around Washington city. From the first I kept little note-books for impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory of names and circumstances, and what was specially wanted, &c. In these I brief’d cases, persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bedside, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead. Of the present Volume most of its pages are verbatim renderings from such pencillings on the spot. Some were scratch’d down from narratives I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes. I have perhaps forty such little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil’d and creas’d little livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten’d with a pin. I leave them just as I threw them by during the War, blotch’d here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, sometimes at the clinique, not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march. Even these days, at the lapse of many years, I can never turn their tiny leaves, or even take one in my hand, without the actual army sights and hot emotions of the time rushing like a river in full tide through me. Each line, each scrawl, each memorandum, has its history. Some pang of anguish — some tragedy, profounder than ever poet wrote. Out of them arise active and breathing forms. They summon up, even in this silent and vacant room as I write, not only the sinewy regiments and brigades, marching or in camp, but the countless phantoms of those who fell and were hastily buried by wholesale in the battle-pits, or whose dust and bones have been since removed to the National Cemeteries of the land, especially through Virginia and Tennessee. (Not Northern soldiers only — many indeed the Carolinian, Georgian, Alabamian, Louisianian, Virginian — many a Southern face and form, pale, emaciated, with that strange tie of confidence and love between us, welded by sickness, pain of wounds, and little daily, nightly offices of nursing and friendly words and visits, comes up amid the rest, and does


4-not mar, but rounds and gives a finish to the meditation.) Vivid as life, they recall and identify the long Hospital Wards, with their myriad-varied scenes of day or night — the graphic incidents of field or camp — the night before the battle, with many solemn yet cool preparations — the changeful exaltations and depressions of those four years, North and South — the convulsive memories, (let but a word, a broken sentence, serve to recall them) — the clues already quite vanish’d, like some old dream, and yet the list significant enough to soldiers — the scrawl’d, worn slips of paper that came up by bushels from the Southern prisons, Salisbury or Andersonville, by the hands of exchanged prisoners — the clank of crutches on the pavements or floors of Washington, or up and down the stairs of the Paymasters’ offices — the Grand Review of homebound veterans at the close of the War, cheerily marching day after day by the President’s house, one brigade succeeding another until it seem’d as if they would never end — the strange squads of Southern deserters, (escapees, I call’d them;) — that little genre group, unreck’d amid the mighty whirl, I remember passing in a hospital corner, of a dying Irish boy, a Catholic priest, and an improvised altar — Four years compressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempests of life and death — an inexhaustible mine for the Histories, Drama, Romance and even Philosophy of centuries to come — indeed the Verteber of Poetry and Art, (of personal character too,) for all future America, (far more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homer’s siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakspere;) — and looking over all, in my remembrance, the tall form of President Lincoln, with his face of deep-cut lines, with the large, kind, canny eyes, the complexion of dark brown, and the tinge of wierd melancholy saturating all.More and more, in my recollections of that period, and through its varied, multitudinous oceans and murky whirls, appear the central resolution and sternness of the bulk of the average American People, animated in Soul by a definite purpose, though sweeping and fluid as some great storm — the Common People, emblemised in thousands of specimens of first-class Heroism, steadily accumulating, (no regiment, no company, hardly a file of men, North or South, the last three years, without such first-class specimens.)

I know not how it may have been, or may be, to others — to me the main interest of the War, I found, (and still, on recollection, find,) in those specimens, and in the ambulance, the Hospital, and even the dead on the field. To me, the points illustrating the latent Personal Character and eligibilities of These States, in the two or three millions of American young and middle-aged men, North and South, embodied in the armies — and especially the one-third or one-fourth of


5-their number, stricken by wounds or disease at some time in the course of the contest — were of more significance even than the Political interests involved. (As so much of a Race depends on what it thinks of death, and how it stands personal anguish and sickness. As, in the glints of emotions under emergencies, and the indirect traits and asides in Plutarch, &c., we get far profounder clues to the antique world than all its more formal history.)Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not. In the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten. I have at night watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not live many hours. I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and mutilations of the corpse afterward. [See, in the following pages, the incident at Upperville — the seventeen, kill’d as in the description, were left there on the ground. After they dropt dead, no one touch’d them — all were made sure of, however. The carcasses were left for the citizens to bury or not, as they chose.]

Such was the War. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written, its practicality, minutia of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual Soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp — I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be.

The present Memoranda may furnish a few stray glimpses into that life, and into those lurid interiors of the period, never to be fully convey’d to the future. For that purpose, and for what goes along with it, the Hospital part of the drama from ’61 to ’65, deserves indeed to be recorded — (I but suggest it.) Of that many-threaded drama, with its sudden and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of despair, the dread of foreign interference, the interminable campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green armies, the drafts and bounties — the immense money expenditure, like a heavy pouring constant rain — with, over the whole land, the last three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans — the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Hospitals — (it seem’d sometimes as if the whole interest of the land, North and South, was one vast central Hospital, and all the rest of the affair but flanges) — those forming the Untold and Unwritten History of the War — infinitely


6-finitely greater (like Life’s) than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written. Think how much, and of importance, will be — how much, civic and military, has already been — buried in the grave, in eternal darkness !……. But to my Memoranda.

I key in on this vision of “stray glimpses” and convulsive writing: of representation that not only has limitations, but wants somehow to preserve them. It seems to me it has much to do with what Whitman means by ‘the real war will never get in the books.’ I have also argued that this has something to do with Whitman’s photographic vision of the war that comes through this prose–which can be contrasted with the actual photographs made famous by Brady and Alexander Gardner (image here: Harvest of Death).

Is this a different Whitman–this vision of limitation? Perhaps. But there is also a parallel for us to consider from Emerson. The apparent shift that Emerson seems to make around “Experience.” This too seems to focus more on limitation and suffering–and presumably for good reason. But is the writer’s recognition of that limitation completely foreign to the celebrated singing of “Song of Myself”?Yet again, I think the concept of metonymy holds for us a key. The vision in the war memoranda (as throughout Specimen Days) is thoroughly, sometimes disturbingly, metonymyic. The effects of war represented best (after all) in the “parts of the actual distraction” as Whitman puts it in the “Convulsiveness” chapter of SD. And we know that vision is not new to Whitman–also characterizes the poetry. And it is the same metonymy that shows up in Emerson’s thinking (early and late) and figured in this line from “Experience”: “I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.”

The difference to consider, rather, is the way Whitman’s Civil War poetry (so it seems to me) is not as thoroughly metonymyic. In fact, seems much more interested in metaphor, and in producing metaphors of war, in celebrating war as metaphor. Or so it seems to me in the earliest poems in Drum-Taps.

This is the argument, it seems, of “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books,” positioned at the end of the war memoranda section in Specimen Days. Whitman demonstrates the argument in practice most vividly in the chapter just before that, “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up.” The bulk of the chapter is a massive sentence fragment.

The dead in this war—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the south—Virginia, the Peninsula—Malvern hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chickahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War department is 25,000 national soldiers kill’d in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown’d—15,000 inhumed by strangers, or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities—2,000 graves cover’d by sand and mud by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)—Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh—the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere—the crop reap’d by the mighty reapers, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations—and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c., (not Dante’s pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell’d those prisons)—the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)—or East or West—Atlantic coast or Mississippi valley—somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet)—our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend—the clusters of camp graves, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in Tennessee—the single graves left in the woods or by the road-side, (hundreds, thousands, obliterated)—the corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged, (dozens, scores, floated down the upper Potomac, after the cavalry engagements, the pursuit of Lee, following Gettysburgh)—some lie at the bottom of the sea—the general million, and the special cemeteries in almost all the States—the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw)—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil—thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.

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