Week 32, Whitman and the Civil War

Members of Company E of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops at Ft. Lincoln (Courtesy Library of Congress).
Members of Company E of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops at Ft. Lincoln (Courtesy Library of Congress).


This week's texts are “Convulsiveness” and “Three Years Summ’d Up.”

Originally, Whitman concluded his Memoranda During the War with the section called “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up—The Unknown.” But then he appended a long series of “Notes,” the first of which was a brief statement called “Convulsiveness.” He feared, he said, that his Civil War notes “would prove . . . but a batch of convulsively written reminiscences,” but that was fine, he decided, since “the War itself with the temper of society preceding it” could “be best described by that very word, Convulsiveness.” It is telling that Whitman chose this unfamiliar form of the word instead of the more commonly used “convulsion”: rather than indicating a single violent social and political upheaval, “convulsiveness” captured the ongoing nature of the turmoil. The word has a fascinating etymology, containing in its Latin roots two contradictory motions—a movement together (com) and a violent pulling apart (vellere). That continually pulling together and pulling apart was, of course, at the very heart of Whitman’s poetics and of his conception of the self (an entity that kept expanding out into the world, threatening dispersion into the vast variety of experience, and then contracting back in, holding the contradictory materials in one single identity), and he came to see this convulsiveness as built into the very fabric of the American national experience—endless cycles of revolution and constitution. In another note appended to Memoranda, he explained how convulsiveness in fact defined the United States: “And now I have myself, in my thought, deliberately come to unite the whole conflict, both sides, the South and North, really into One, and to view it as a struggle going on within One Identity. Like any of Nature's great convulsions, wars going on within herself—not from separated sets of laws and influences, but the same—really, efforts, conflicts, most violent ones, for deeper harmony, freer and larger scope, completer homogeneousness and power. What is any Nation, after all—and what is a human being—but a struggle between conflicting, paradoxical, opposing elements—and they themselves and their most violent contests, important parts of that One Identity, and of its development?”

It is what we saw in Whitman’s construction of an American deity in “Chanting the Square Deific,” his effort to build ongoing revolt and ever-renewing reconciliation into the guiding spirit of the nation. A nation, like every individual, is a set of tensely “united” states, containing warring contradictions that need continually to be negotiated and contained in order to maintain Union. This idea became so central to Whitman that, when he revised Memoranda and incorporated it within his autobiography called Specimen Days, he moved the “Convulsiveness” note directly into the text and left it there as a central defining concept of the country—its remarkable ability to continually pull itself apart and then blend itself back together, to privilege the individual over the community, then to privilege the community over the individual; to give precedence to states’ rights, then to give precedence to federal power; to protect the weak and impoverished, then to protect the rich and powerful. There is an endless convulsiveness to America’s history, and the Civil War was but one particularly violent convulsion in that ongoing history. We are always and inevitably experiencing convulsions.

In his many hospital visits—which Whitman tallies in his section called “Three Years Summ’d Up” and estimates at up to 100,000—he often encountered soldiers undergoing convulsions: he recalls one soldier, a “perfect specimen of physique,” who experienced “convulsive spasms and working of muscles, mouth, and throat,” and he describes how, often, “some youngster holds on to me convulsively, and I do what I can for him.” Convulsions were all around Whitman—on the battlefields, in the hospitals, in the political debates—and so it is no surprise that, when he thought of the nation’s dramatic history up through Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the word he used to describe the drama “of this America of ours” was “convulsionary.”

Those “three years summ’d up” evoke the same odd contraction that he used in “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up”—a summing and a summoning . Now, in his convulsive, start-and-stop notes, he was adding it all up but also calling it all up, reliving the convulsions that he saw wounded soldiers go through and re-experiencing the convulsions of the long fratricidal war, even perhaps recognizing the convulsions within himself that he tried so desperately to suppress during his extraordinary service in the war’s hospitals, where a nation torn apart by regional and racial convulsions came, and where Whitman experienced for the first time the fullness and unified diversity of his always convulsive nation, where he cared for the “wounded and sick . . . from all the states, North and South, without exception”—and from “all the Western States” as well, “rebel” and Union, white and black. The nation had come to hospital, and there is where it found Walt Whitman and where Whitman found it, convulsive and desperate for healing.



'Convulsiveness.' —As I have look'd over the proof-sheets of the preceding Memoranda, I have once or twice fear'd that my little tract would prove, at best, but a batch of convulsively written reminiscences. Well, be it so. They are but items, parts of the actual distraction, heat, smoke and excitement of those times—of the qualities that then and there took shape. The War itself with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word, Convulsiveness.

“Three Years Summ’d Up”

Three Years Summ'd Up. —During my past three years in Hospital, camp or field, I made over 600 visits or tours, and went, as I estimate, among from 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need. These visits varied from an hour or two, to all day or night; for with dear or critical cases I always watch'd all night. Sometimes I took up my quarters in the Hospital, and slept or watch'd there several nights in succession. Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction, (with all their feverish excitements and physical deprivations and lamentable sights,) and, of course, the most profound lesson and reminiscence, of my life. I can say that in my ministerings I comprehended all, whoever came in my way, Northern or Southern, and slighted none. It afforded me, too, the perusal of those subtlest, rarest, divinest volumes of Humanity, laid bare in its inmost recesses, and of actual life and death, better than the finest, most labor'd narratives, histories, poems in the libraries. It arous'd and brought out and decided undream'd-of depths of emotion. It has given me my plainest and most fervent views of the true ensemble and extent of The States. While I was with wounded and sick in thousands of cases from the New England States, and from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and from Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and all the Western States, I was with more or less from all the States, North and South, without exception. I was with many from the Border States, especially from Maryland and Virginia; and found, during those lurid years 1862–65, far more Union Southerners, especially Tennesseans, than is supposed. I was with many rebel officers and men among our wounded, and gave them always what I had, and tried to cheer them the same as any. I was among the army teamsters considerably, and, indeed, always found myself drawn to them. Among the black soldiers, wounded or sick, and in the contraband camps, I also took my way whenever in their neighborhood, and did what I could for them.


In times of spiritual aridity I often turn to the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those brave Christians who retreated into the Egyptian desert in the fourth century to draw closer to God, fasting and praying, singing hymns and reading Scripture. They emptied themselves of worldly ambitions, concerns, and pleasures to become vessels for the divine and taste eternity. “Give me a word, abba (father)” or “give me a way of life, amma (mother),” visitors would petition the desert dwellers; collections of their replies have nourished readers, religious and secular, for 1,500 years. One favorite from The Heart of the Desert, a compendium assembled by John Chryssavgis—“A certain brother asked Abba Pimenion, saying, ‘What is faith?’ And the old man said, ‘To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one’s neighbors.’”—reads like a gloss on Whitman’s “Three Years Summ’d Up.” For the poet’s ministry to sick and wounded soldiers, which lasted about as long as Christ’s ministry in the Galilee, schooled him in loving kindness, if not necessarily humility; for his efforts to do right by his neighbors, on both sides of the war, he was vouchsafed a healing vision of literature—which governed his writing during and after the convulsions through which he and his compatriots lived.

He described the “convulsively written reminiscences” in Memoranda During the War as being “part of the actual distraction, heat, smoke and excitement of those times—of the qualities that then and there took shape.” Writing constantly, bearing witness to the birth of a new political order, he produced the first draft of a history that continues to unfold in an unpredictable manner. In his determination to sustain in body and spirit upwards of 100,000 warriors in their time of need, “in Hospital, camp, or field,” he claims to have “comprehended all, whoever came in my way.” The largeness of spirit that characterized his writing during and after the war was a function of his caring for men in their final hours, which allowed him to peruse “those subtlest, rarest, divinest volumes of Humanity, laid bare in its inmost recesses, and of actual life and death, better than the finest, most labor’d narratives, histories, poems in the libraries.” The exigencies of writing on the fly, taking testimony minute by minute, inspired him to a new way of writing, capturing the essence of an individual at a stroke, distilling salient details from his life in order to account for what was heretofore too awful to contemplate: death on an industrial scale.

In the crucible of war Whitman did what he could do—and that made all the difference.



Whitman suggests that convulsiveness was the best word to describe the war "and the temper of society preceding it." What word would you use to describe the temper of the times you live in? How might that word guide your attempts to write about this moment in history? Is that word large enough to capture the spirit of the age?

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