Civil War Writings

In Whitman Civil War—the latest incarnation of the WhitmanWeb—war is the subject, but peace and reconciliation are the themes we will explore week by week. How did Walt Whitman deal with the failure of the American experiment that he had celebrated in the 1855, 1856, and 1860 editions of Leaves of Grass? Soon after the 1860 Leaves appeared, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and a cascade of events began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, leading to the four-year carnage of the Civil War, which caused more combat deaths than the combined total of all previous and subsequent American wars. This unprecedented mass death demanded new forms of witnessing. Whitman’s literary response to those events, in poetry and prose, is what we will explore over the next nine months, beginning on 28 October, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps, a collection of poems with a sharply different bearing than Leaves of Grass. Whitman would literally sew the pages of Drum-Taps and Sequel into copies of his 1867 edition of Leaves, a literal act of suturing as he stitched the horror of the war into his book of hope for the nation. Eventually he scattered these poems throughout the final editions of Leaves, letting the language of the war bleed into his democratic optimism. What he described in his war poems and in the prose sketches included in Memoranda During the War offers a darker, more nuanced understanding of his lifelong project, which was nothing less than to write the poem of these United States. “The proof of a poet,” he wrote in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” After the rupture of the War between the States, there was an abundance of tragic material and shed blood to absorb, and Whitman did just that.


Principal contributors:

Ed Folsom is the editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive and editor of the Whitman Series at The University of Iowa Press. The Roy J. Carver Professor of English at The University of Iowa, he is the author or editor of twelve books, including Walt Whitman’s Native Representations (1994) and (with Kenneth M. Price) Re-Scripting Walt Whitman (2005), as well as numerous essays on Whitman and other American writers appearing in journals like American Literature, PMLA, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. He is now working on a biography of Leaves of Grass.

Christopher Merrill has published four collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and books of translations; and five works of nonfiction, most recently Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain and The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War. His writings have been translated into twenty-five languages and his journalism appears widely. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, he has undertaken cultural diplomacy missions in more than thirty countries. His web site is


Eric Forsythe (voice actor for English texts) is a veteran stage, TV and film actor who trained at Dartmouth and Carnegie-Mellon (BA, MFA, PhD), and then with Grotowski's Lab Theatre in Poland. His recording career includes hundreds of credits, ranging from full-length works to poetry, to specials for NPR, radio and TV commercials and voices for stage productions across the country. He currently heads the Directing Program at the University of Iowa, and is Artistic Director of Iowa Summer Rep.

Nadia Fayidh Mohammed (Arabic translator) is a professor of English and American poetry at the University of Mustaserya in Baghdad (Iraq), where she specializes in contemporary African American poetry, as well as teaching various aspects of the ESL curriculum. She is also a member of the Iraqi Translators’ Association, working both from and into Arabic. Her own creative work appears on-line, and on her blog Seeing Things.