Here, three years into the war, a year from its conclusion, Whitman is at the breaking point. In this intimate letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, Walt expresses his emotions openly. The repressed pain and torment that he so often, in his published Civil War writings, contained in parentheses, flow out in this letter: “I could not keep the tears out of my eyes. . . . Mother, it is enough to rack one's heart, such things. . . . My feelings are kept in a painful condition a great part of the time—things get worse & worse, as to the amount & sufferings of the sick. . . . Mother, I will try to write more cheerfully next time—but I see so much.” Whitman’s letters to his mother during the war are some of the most affecting documents he wrote; his close relationship with her allowed him to express himself in often remarkably unguarded ways.
We feel in this letter the intense relational responsibilities that Whitman felt—responsibilities to his new family in Washington DC, made up of the Civil War dying and wounded soldiers in the hospitals he visited daily and nightly, and responsibilities to his biological family back in Brooklyn, which was suffering its own breakdown and disunion. Just a few months before this letter, Whitman’s brother Andrew, who served briefly in the war, died of tuberculosis at his home in Brooklyn, leaving behind two children and a pregnant wife, Nancy, who soon became a prostitute. Walt’s older brother Jesse lived in the basement of the Whitman family home with mother Louisa and with Walt’s younger, mentally deficient brother Eddy; Jesse, who would soon be institutionalized, was getting increasingly violent and threatening the children and wife of Walt’s brother Jeff, who lived upstairs. Walt’s other brother George, still a soldier involved in some of the most intense battles of the war and soon to become a prisoner of war, was a continual worry for both Whitman and his mother. And, for Walt, Louisa’s health was an incessant concern, too: scrawled at the top of this letter is one expression of that worry: “I feel uneasy about [you]—” Like his nation, Whitman’s family was coming apart at the seams.
His greatest unease, though, was the increasing population of wounded and dying soldiers in Washington. As was happening more and more with Whitman, he was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers (he once estimated he had visited 100,000 sick and wounded soldiers during the final two years of the war), and, to hold onto his sanity, he kept focusing in—as he does in this letter—from the nameless many to the single individual that he could come to know, comfort, give gifts to, write letters for, brief as each relationship may be. He would jot down each of their names and a few details of each of their lives in the notebooks he always carried with him. He offered love and confirmed their identity. But in this letter, what causes him to break is when he comes upon the single soldier who dies before he can be known, who dies without a name, without a family that can be written to, without an embrace and kiss from the bearded poet who was quick to become father, brother, comrade, mother, nurse, scribe—whatever it took. On this night, however, as a torrential rain falls and 600-plus maimed soldiers enter the capital and are carried to hospitals, Whitman latches onto “one poor boy,” small and slight, who dies before he can identify himself, dies with no evidence of who he is, dies—as Whitman so desolately puts it—“entirely unknown.”
We recall “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up,” where Whitman tells us, as he surveys the growing number of war cemeteries, about “the significant word Unknown,” and how “in some of the cemeteries nearly all the dead are unknown.” Every young soldier who dies in the war is in a very real sense unknown, because he hasn’t lived long enough to form a full identity. But some soldiers, like the one Whitman loses to death on this blustery March night, are unknown in an even deeper sense, lost even to the small bit of care and love and remembrance that is all Whitman had to give. And now he feels he is about to give out, like so many around him. He senses a growing callousness on the part of the caregivers themselves, a hardening and indifference to suffering that makes Whitman “almost frightened of the world.” As one unnamed soldier drifts into permanent oblivion, his youth and fragility making him seem to Whitman “a poor, poor child,” Whitman too embraces his own childhood dependence on his mother and, for the space of this letter, releases his fears and his despair and his tears. The next day he would start again and look for others among the dying that he could embrace and promise to remember and make known; he will absorb their fear and despair and tears just as on this night Louisa absorbs Walt’s.
Tuesday afternoon M[arch 29]
I have written [to] George again to Knox[ville]—things seem to be quiet down there so far—We think here that our forces are going to be made strongest here in Virginia this spring, & every thing bent to take Richmond—Grant is here, he is now down at headquarters in the field, Brandy Station—we expect fighting before long, there are many indications—I believe I told you they had sent up all the sick from front 1—about four nights ago we [had a] terrible rainy afternoon [& night]—Well in the middle [of the w]orst of the rain at [night? th]ere arrived a train [of sick?] & wounded, over 600 [soldiers], down at the depot—[It w]as one of the same [old] sights, I could not keep the tears out of my eyes—many of the poor young men had to be moved on stretchers, with blankets over them, which soon soaked as wet as water in the rain—Most were sick cases, but some badly wounded—I came up to the nearest hospital & helped—Mother, it was a dreadful night (last Friday night)—pretty dark, the wind gusty, & the rain fell in torrents—One poor boy (this is a sample of one case out of the 6000 he seemed to me quite young, he was quite small, (I looked at his body afterwards)—he groaned some as the stretcher–bearers were carrying him along—& again as they carried him through the hospital gate, they set down the stretcher & examined him, & the poor boy was dead—they took him into the ward, & the doctor came immediately, but it was all of no use—the worst of it is too that he is entirely unknown—there was nothing on his clothes, or any one with him, to identify him—& he is altogether unknown—Mother, it is enough to rack one's heart, such things—very likely his folks will never know in the world what has become of him—poor poor child, for he appeared as though he could be but 18—
I feel lately as though I must have some intermission, I feel well & hearty enough, & was never better, but my feelings are kept in a painful condition a great part of the time—things get worse & worse, as to the amount & sufferings of the sick, & as I have said before, those who have to do with them are getting more & more callous & indifferent—Mother, when I see the common soldiers, what they go through, & how every body seems to try to pick upon them, & what humbug there is over them every how, even the dying soldier's money stolen from his body by some scoundrel attendant, or from some sick ones, even from under his head, which is a common thing—& then the agony I see every day, I get almost frightened at the world—Mother, I will try to write more cheerfully next time—but I see so much—well, good bye for present, dear Mother—
Mother, I got your letter telling [me you were] better—have you got quite we[ll?—I] wish you would write very so[on again] too—I feel uneasy about [you]—I send my love to Jeff & Mat & all—
The Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery has its counterparts in many foreign capitals, commemorating the nameless fallen from conflicts around the world. Whitman’s letter to his mother in the last year of the war, which testifies to his despair at the ongoing slaughter and his need for an “intermission” from caring for the wounded, is also an elegy for an unidentified soldier whose parents will likely never know what became of him. Think of his cry from the heart as a hymn to what remains unknowable in war: all the what-ifs of a life cut short on the battlefield. It is more than the poet can bear. (No wonder his health soon gave out.) The sight of a train arriving in a torrential rainstorm with 600 sick and wounded soldiers on stretchers covered with soaking blankets reduces him to tears, his gaze alighting on the “poor poor child” whose death symbolizes all that has gone wrong in his beloved country. He rightly fears for the world.
A Bosnian writer once told me that he had lost track of all the wounds he had suffered during the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia—though he clearly remembered the day a piece of shrapnel lodged in his tongue, leaving him with a mild speech impediment. “He’s lost the plot,” a fellow writer said of him—a plot he hoped to recover in the novel he was writing about his time at the front. The recent discovery that the memory of trauma can be passed down from generation to generation suggests that his experience of war will not only shape his literary work but perhaps the lives of his offspring, too. Scientists devised a study of children of Holocaust survivors to mark the epigenetic changes governing their responses to stress, confirming the theory that environmental factors, including war, can alter the genetic makeup of some individuals. War changes everyone in its path—soldiers, survivors, victims and their families, doctors and nurses, diplomats and observers—as well as those who come after. Whitman may have grasped this in the train depot, registering and recording in his body and soul the wounds of a nation.
“The wound and the wasteland are the same thing,” one painter tells another in Pat Barker’s novel Toby’s Room, the second part of a trilogy set in World War One. How should artists represent the gruesome facts of war? Barker’s various articulations of this question point to the deep human need to make sense of tragedy, as Whitman’s confession of despair to his mother makes clear. His feeling for the sick and dying was the opposite of “some scoundrel attendant” preying on them in their time of need: one reason why his war writings continue to resonate. He looked into the abyss, promising his mother “to write more cheerfully next time.” What else could he do?
Whitman’s letter records what it feels like to reach a point of utter despair. Such moments are dangerous for anyone, but they are especially challenging for a writer. These are the moments when writers may decide to go silent, or when, alternatively, they may choose to write themselves out of the dark silence. Whitman ends this letter by telling his mother he “will try to write more cheerfully next time—but I see so much.” That last phrase is telling: what he has seen “so much” of is hopelessness, loss, death, cruelty. A writer usually wants to “see so much” in order to write, to have something to write about, but the freight of despair at what Whitman has seen now seems too heavy a burden to bear. What do you find in this letter that leads him to continue to want to articulate what he has seen, that makes him want to continue to write instead of going silent?
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