The United States Patent Office Building was one of the first large governmental buildings to be constructed in Washington (after the Capitol and the White House); it was begun in the mid-1830s and completed at the end of the Civil War. In 1865, Whitman would work in this building as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (which was housed in the basement of the Patent Office), but two years earlier—within days of arriving in the capital after he finished caring for his soldier-brother George at Fredericksburg, Virginia—he had visited sick and wounded soldiers who were housed here. It is where he made his commitment to devote himself to these soldiers in the hospitals that were proliferating throughout Washington, so many that it seemed to him as if the entire nation (as he wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson) had been “brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited sepulchre of Washington itself.” America’s great white capital city that was still being built seemed to Whitman to have already become so many tombs—literal tombs of dying soldiers and figurative tombs of a dying nation, a nation broken and wounded and yet still so young, just like the endless streams of injured boyish soldiers who flooded into Washington. Whitman traveled from Virginia to Washington on a train full of wounded soldiers from the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg, and he wrote to Emerson about this “freight of helpless worn and wounded youth, genuine of the soil,” many of them from the promising new western part of the nation, a “convincing western crop, prophetic of the future, proofs undeniable to all men’s ken of perfect beauty, tenderness and pluck.” The capital’s grand, new, still unfinished white marble government buildings were appropriated as barracks for soldiers and as hospitals for the wounded. The Patent Office served both purposes, first as temporary housing for troops preparing to leave for battle, and then, all too quickly, as a hospital for the battered remnants that returned. And so Whitman began his daily visits, he told Emerson, and found “Death there up and down the aisle, tapping lightly by night or day here and there some poor young man, with relieving touch.”
The two brief sections that Whitman devotes to the U.S. Patent Office Building—one near the beginning of Memoranda During the War and one near the end—illustrate his keen sense of irony about the quickly shifting nature of the city and the phantasmagoric way that one building could contain such a conflicting, altering, and compressed panorama of the nation’s abrupt transformations. The Patent Office was set up to show off human inventiveness, to celebrate the progress of civilization through the development of new tools, implements, and machines. The second story of the building had display cases throughout the hall, some lit by gaslight, displaying “models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive” (inventors at the time were required to submit such miniature models in order to apply for a patent). Some of those models were of the latest and ever more efficient weapons that were now being deployed on the Civil War battlefields. So Whitman subtly develops in the “Patent Office Hospital” section the cruel irony surrounding the word cases: he describes the “high and ponderous glass cases” that contained the models of man’s invention, and then he tells us that “between these cases” in the “lateral openings” “were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall.” “Many of them,” Whitman tells us, “were very bad cases, wounds and amputations.” “It was, indeed, a curious scene,” Whitman says, made all the more curious because of the juxtaposition of one set of “cases” celebrating the latest weaponry and another set of “cases” revealing the horrific results of the use of those inventions. The building that was created to show off the fruits of civilization now displayed instead the bloody results—cases surrounding cases—as a nation just beginning to take its place as a model of New World civilization descended into barbarism.
When Whitman goes back to the Patent Office in 1865 to begin his clerkship, he once again views the exhibition hall, which in March was set up to house the gala dinner and ball for President Lincoln’s second inauguration. The subtle irony of the “Patent Hall Hospital” section now hardens into the sarcasm and cynicism of the “Inauguration Ball” paragraph: “I could not help thinking, what a different scene [the rooms] presented to my view a while since, fill’d with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war.” The stark contrast between “beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness” and “the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood” is more than Whitman can take. “Civilization” now appears to have reclaimed the building, and the cases of inventions are surrounded by music, dancing, and fine food, but Whitman knows it is a façade: he can no longer enter this building without seeing, hearing, and smelling the now invisible but still palpable other cases, the worst cases, “the crowd of the badly hurt” that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Feb . 23.—I must not let the great Hospital at the Patent Office pass away without some mention. A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings, was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there many times. It was a strange, solemn and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases. Two of the immense apartments are fill'd with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter'd into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide, and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick; besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations. Then there was a gallery running above the hall, in which there were beds also. It was, indeed, a curious scene at night, when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot—the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees—occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress'd—sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no relative—such were the sights but lately in the Patent Office. The wounded have since been removed from there, and it is now vacant again.
March 6—Inauguration Ball.—I have this moment been up to look at the gorgeous array'd dance and supper-rooms, for the Inauguration Ball, at the Patent Office, (which begins in few hours;) and I could not help thinking of those rooms, where the music will sound and the dancers' feet presently tread—what a different scene they presented to my view a while since, fill'd with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war, brought in from Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburgh. To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins' sweetness, the polka and the waltz; but then, the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood, and many a mother's son amid strangers, passing away untended there, (for the crowd of the badly hurt was great, and much for nurse to do, and much for surgeon.)
These two entries about the Patent Office, from Memoranda During the War, serve as palimpsests for Whitman, who discerns in each instance another layer of history, a darker truth: that a space dedicated to human ingenuity was requisitioned early in the war to house sick, wounded, and dying soldiers; their suffering not only colored his view of American society and institutions, calling into question the very idea of progress, but called him to care for them and their wounded brethren. For when “that noblest of Washington buildings,” home to the agency charged with measuring and protecting the inventiveness of the American people, was transformed into a site “of suffering and death,” a new political and social reality was patented, in which death took dominion. And when that space was used for Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, the rooms filling with beautiful perfumed women, music, and dance, the poet could not forget “the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood, and many a mother’s son amid strangers, passing away untended there”—a catalogue of horrors that brought into sharp relief the inherent complications of Lincoln’s electoral promise to prevail in the war and then stitch the Union back together. This, too, would be patented in Whitman’s writings.
He was haunted by what he witnessed in the makeshift hospital, and in his invocation of the men’s ghostly presence he recapitulates one of his working methods, adding layers of grief and complexity to his observations, like scars. Ed Folsom notes that “Whitman often literally cut and pasted poems and essays together,” turning his manuscripts into palimpsests, which are sometimes difficult to categorize and transcribe, crossed-out words and phrases jostling with new lines and ideas. The same holds for successive versions of some of his writings, which he filtered through a gauze of memory and desire. No wonder he could not stop revising Leaves of Grass: each detail suggested the tragic scale of the war, the most enduring invention of his time.
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote in his novel, Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” The persistent influence of the past in shaping belief and behavior in the present, which governed Faulkner’s chronicles of post-war life among the descendants of the defeated in Mississippi, took center stage in the recent controversy over the flying of the Confederate flag in public spaces in the South. Stories passed down through the generations, of valor and betrayal and loss, ensure the continuity of certain ways of thinking about one’s place in the world—which is why aftershocks from the Civil War continue to rock the American body politic. The wounded and dying would be removed from the Patent Office, but not from the troubled conscience of the poet, who would document in granular detail the consequences of secession—which are still with us.
Any interior space that we return to over an extended period of time accretes multiple associations—happy memories, sad memories, feelings of loneliness, feelings of friendship, feelings of frustration and feelings of inspiration. Think about one room or building in which you have experienced—as Whitman did at the Patent Office—multiple and conflicting emotions and describe your relationship to that space.
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