The catalog of death and suffering and pain that ended Section 33 continues in Section 34, but the quick flashes of events and things and people that the poet recorded there now slow to a series of extended narratives, this first one a historical recollection of a mass death in one of the battles over Texas independence that led to the Mexican War. Many readers recall this as the “Alamo section,” and, though the Alamo is mentioned, the event that is recorded here is actually the massacre of Texas rangers at Goliad in 1836. We might think back to the “twenty-eight young men” of Section 11 who bathed naked in a kind of fluid bodily ecstasy and who now stand in such stark contrast to the “four hundred and twelve young men” in this section, whose bodies were burned after the massacre. Whitman’s absorptive “I” would not be honest if it failed to embody the realities of war, hatred, and factionalism that are always at work to undermine the evolution toward the democratic unity and love of diversity that he saw as the hopeful future of America, what he imagined as “All nations here—a home for every race on earth.”
War, however, is by definition about division. What one side in a war calls aggression and hatred and evil, of course, the other side sees as justice and valor and heroism: one side’s “massacre” is the other side’s just response to what it sees as its enemy’s brutality. The inescapable reality of war is that “young men” (and, increasingly, women) on both sides are maimed and murdered, and that their sacred bodies—the sensory apparatus of living souls—are reduced to ash. While Whitman in his early journalism was generally supportive of the Mexican War, later in his life he would write enthusiastically about what he called “the Spanish element in our nationality”: “To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts. No stock shows a grander historic retrospect—grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity, and honor. . . . As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?”
It might be tempting, then, to read this section as Whitman’s giving voice to a kind of jingoistic belief in the manifest destiny of the United States by expressing outrage at what the poet portrays as savage behavior by the Mexicans, who seem to deserve to lose vast amounts of land to the ultimate democratic victors. But recent discoveries indicate that Whitman may well have derived this description of the massacre from the journal of a Mexican officer who was witness to the events, and thus the “I” here performs a complicated kind of cultural crossing in being able to describe what happened. And the emphasis here, in any case, is on physical loss, the loss of physicality itself, as war takes its inevitable toll on the bodies of those who have been convinced or coerced to fight. As he said in the previous section, “Agonies are one of my changes of garments”: in this section, the poet wears the garb of suffering and death.
Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, the headline in The New York Times—“Suicide Bombers Kill 37 at Shiite Mosque in Baghdad—no longer shocked my conscience, even though I had traveled to Baghdad just weeks before on a cultural diplomacy mission. I have friends in the city, projects to complete there, and yet I did not read the story until I learned from a diplomat that the mosque was located next to a university in which I had lectured. Then the attack acquired a personal dimension: the students and professors assembling for midday prayers, the guards killed at the security checkpoint. Some of the dead or wounded worshippers might have attended my lecture, asked questions, posed for photographs. I remembered the head of my security detail pulling me aside before we entered the auditorium to warn that tensions were running high on campus; at his signal I was to leave the stage without delay. Nothing happened, only a lively exchange of ideas about writing and American literature, with an emphasis on Walt Whitman—which in a war-torn city was perhaps remarkable, as are true exchanges anywhere, at any time.
Whitman wisely varies the pace in this section, juxtaposing the longest catalogue in the poem with the tale of the murder of hundreds of Texas rangers, a gruesome labor carried out on a beautiful summer morning. He mourns their youth; highlights their heroism in the face of betrayal; spares no gory detail of the massacre. His lament is not for the dead at the Battle of the Alamo, which changed the course of the Texas Revolution, but for the bearded men, large and generous and dressed “in the free costume of hunters,” whom history might otherwise forget. He takes their deaths personally; their bodies will not stop burning as long as his poem is read.
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T. S. Eliot observed in Four Quartets, the publication of which, in 1944, helped readers cope with the stress of war. Whitman also teaches us how to bear more reality. Confronted with reports from battlefields around the world, not to mention an endless stream of news of heinous crimes, political scandals, and examples of human depravity, we may wish to turn away. This is a luxury that Whitman insists we cannot afford.
Is it possible to describe the deaths of soldiers in a war in such a way that nationalistic and patriotic feelings are not further provoked? Could an American describe the “massacre” of American soldiers in the Mexican War without creating enmity and instead create only a feeling of sorrow? Do you know of poets who have accomplished such descriptions?