American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Lines of Inquiry

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Eliza Richards

A few weeks back, I spent some time with “Poetry, Journalism, and the U.S. Civil War” by Eliza Richards, part of a special issue on nineteenth-century American poetry (ESQ 51.1-4). Richards begins with an essay on the war news by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (whose prose writings on the Civil War are key texts in my view — and not only mine: Tyler B. Hoffman, Alice Fahs, and Franny Nudelman make canny use of him in scholarly works that I much admire).[1]

Here are two important sentences from Holmes that Richards cites, the second with a little abridgment (the date refers to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter):

Now, if a thought goes round through the brain a thousand times in a day, it will have worn as deep a track as one which has passed through it once a week for twenty years. This accounts for the ages we seem to have lived since the twelfth of April last, and, to state it more generally, for that ex post facto operation of a great calamity, or any very powerful impression, which we once illustrated by the image of a stain spreading backwards from the leaf of life open before us through all those which we have already turned.

The previous illustration to which Holmes refers is a passage from The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858):

A great calamity … is as old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning. For this we seem to have lived…. After the tossing half-forgetfulness of the first sleep that follows such an event, it comes upon us afresh as a surprise, at waking; in a few moments it is old again, — old as eternity.

Holmes belongs, clearly, to a small number of theorists whose models of the mind look forward to Freud. And like Freud, Holmes was a medical doctor. This surely gave his models a clinical authority to readers of the time.

Richards shortens her quote to exclude the image of the blot. She does so because another Holmes image is more important for her argument. This second image is a kind of inverse of the first. Instead of imagining the human mind as a material object, it imagines the nation as a human body. Or maybe the inversion is only apparent, as the human body in the second image is itself imagined on the model of material object. But unlike the book, which has a history that reaches back — well, not quite as far as the trilobite — Holmes’s other objects are technologically advanced. Those advances were at the time of his writing transforming the nation’s experience of itself, and also its experience of war. As Holmes writes:

[T]here are new conditions of existence which make war as it is with us very different from war as it has been. The first and obvious difference consists in the fact that the whole nation is now penetrated by the ramifications of a network of iron nerves which flash sensation and volition backward and forward to and from towns and provinces as if they were organs and limbs of a single living body. The second is the vast system of iron muscles which, as it were, move the limbs of the mighty organism one upon another.

In other words, the individual human mind is a book, but this book is the product of a nation that relies on the telegraph for its nerves and on the railroad for its muscles — much as the publishing industry itself relied on telegraph and railroad for speedy production.

The discussion of Holmes by Richards prepares the way for two important claims about the non-combatant experience of the Civil War: first, that mass media brought civilians into a new, psychologically powerful relationship to war’s violence; and second, that this new relationship was an important part of the Civil War story. Psychology as such is not an issue for Richards (for which I’m thankful: that’s a line I’m tracing in my own work!). Rather, she wants to claim — and does claim persuasively — that the immediacy of communication to and from the battlefield

blurs distinctions between direct and vicarious experiences of violence, between the inscription of violence and the violence of inscription, between fighting and writing.

And she follows out that thought very ingeniously by looking at several poems that mobilize words with military and journalistic meanings, such as “column,” “wire,” and “line.” The last of these is also, of course, a term in poetry — which is precisely the point; the distinction between journalism and poetry was also becoming blurred. As Richards writes:

By tracing the figure of the line from battles to poems, and sometimes back again, I hope to do more than belabor a convenient pun; I seek to recall a time when lines of communication forged new relations and overwrote others.

A particularly interesting example of that forging is the Melville poem reproduced below (note that “McClellan” should be indented throughout — click on the title for a view of the original page):

The Victor Of Antietam


When tempest winnowed grain from bran,
And men were looking for a man,
Authority called you to the van,
Along the line the plaudit ran,
As later when Antietam’s cheers began.

Through storm-cloud and eclipse must move
Each Cause and Man, dear to the stars and Jove;
Nor always can the wisest tell
Deferred fulfillment from the hopeless knell —
The struggler from the floundering ne’er-do-well.
A pall-cloth on the Seven Days fell,
McClellan —
Unprosperously heroical!
Who could Antietam’s wreath foretell?

Authority called you; then, in mist
And loom of jeopardy — dismissed.
But staring peril soon appalled;
You, the Discarded, she recalled —
Recalled you, nor endured delay;
And forth you rode upon a blasted way,
Arrayed Pope’s rout, and routed Lee’s array,
Your tent was choked with captured flags that day,
Antietam was a telling fray.

Recalled you; and she heard your drum
Advancing through the glastly gloom.
You manned the wall, you propped the Dome,
You stormed the powerful stormer home,
Antietam’s cannon long shall boom.

At Alexandria, left alone,
McClellan —
Your veterans sent from you, and thrown
To fields and fortunes all unknown —
What thoughts were yours, revealed to none,
While faithful still you labored on —
Hearing the far Manassas gun!
Only Antietam could atone.

You fought in the front (an evil day,
McClellan) —
The fore-front of the first assay;
The Cause went sounding, groped its way;
The leadsmen quarrelled in the bay;
Quills thwarted swords; divided sway;
The rebel flushed in his lusty May:
You did your best, as in you lay,
Antietam’s sun-burst sheds a ray.

Your medalled soldiers love you well,
Name your name, their true hearts swell;
With you they shook dread Stonewall’s spell,
With you they braved the blended yell
Of rebel and maligner fell;
With you in shame or fame they dwell,
Antietam-braves a brave can tell.

And when your comrades (now so few,
McClellan —
Such ravage in deep files they rue)
Meet round the board, and sadly view
The empty places; tribute due
They render to the dead — and you!
Absent and silent o’er the blue;
The one-armed lift the wine to you,
And great Antietam’s cheers renew.

I love the commentary Richards writes, which focuses on the first and last stanzas. Here are some excerpts:

In the first stanza, … [t]he sonic line of a singular “plaudit” echoes the de-individuated lines of soldiers in newspaper reports, sketches, and poems. Melville likens the cheers of civilians, those on the sidelines supporting McClellan’s ascension to a leadership role, to the cheers of those arrayed in battle lines waiting for McClellan’s call to charge. Spectators and soldiers alike raise their voices in praise. …

By the final stanza a straight, seemingly infinite line of supporters closes in on itself and becomes a small, intermittent circle of survivors raising a glass to their leader long after the battle is over. The straight line has become a mass grave etched deeply in the ground. … “Deep files” of death supplant the living lines; the image evokes both trenches dug as mass graves and swathes of men cut down by mechanized weapons in rows running perpendicular to advancing battle lines. …

Melville makes the subject of his treatment the ways in which lines of plaudit, lines of battle, and lines of poetry hold corresponding passions. For the poem, too, cheers McClellan in lines. Melville explicitly associates the lines of his eulogy with the lines of cheering people by giving the name McClellan its own line and using it as a refrain. … The refrain suggests shouting rather than singing, and the one-beat line conspicuously short-circuits the four-beat lines surrounding it. In particular, Melville suggests that lines — of spectators, soldiers, and poetry alike — forge a collective form via a process of de-individuation.

Click on image for larger view

There’s another Antietam line in Richards’ essay — the line of Confederate bodies arranged for burial in a famous photograph by Alexander Gardner. [2]. Gardner’s image — shown at the left — provokes very particular memories for me. I first saw it in a text by Beverly Dahlen, “A READING: EMILY DICKINSON: Powers of Horror,” published in 1986 in the literary journal Ironwood. When the essay appeared, I was just beginning to think seriously about Dickinson and the Civil War (the thought had been bubbling up for some time), and being a very fitful graduate student then — on the verge of dropping out, in fact — I had not yet seen any scholarly work on the subject (two key studies, by Shira Wolosky and Barton Levi St. Armand, had only just appeared). I was deeply engaged with the local poetry scene; academia, not so much. So Ironwood was on my radar, not books from Yale or Cambridge.

Dahlen’s text is written in diary form, and draws in large part, as the title indicates, on Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror. Much of it went over my head, but there was one section that spoke to me with peculiar clarity. It came by way of a brief digression on Nicholas Abraham’s reading of Hamlet. Dahlen’s method — in keeping with her overall interest in psychoanalysis — was associative. A long, unraveling string, occasionally looped back on itself in knots, snagging and dragging forward the objects through which it passed. Shakespeare’s play, dead fathers, authority, piles of bodies, fratricide, the Civil War …  these were some of the objects Dahlen’s reading of Dickinson had caught. Or were they loops of the string? That’s the thing about psychoanalysis: it can be hard to tell sometimes where the “means” ends and the “end” begins. But anyway, what caught me in this reading was the Civil War, dragged into the discourse with two photographs of the dead at Antietam. Between those photographs, three piquant passages. The first, dated “July 8,” referred back to Hamlet, though the photographs served as a kind of illustration:

at the end of the play a field strewn with corpses and enigmas the death instinct pursuing in silence its work of disruption.

The second, dated “July 9,” referred more directly to the photographs:

the secret cause that pater ex machina the war machine veiled in rhetorical flourish it flourishes the cause of Union.

And the third, dated “July 12,” drew more generally on all that Dahlen had already said:

above all One in whose name we are justified

above all the quarrels of the brothers (property rights, access to women, exchange, the law of paternity: who shall inherit the earth).

After this third passage came the photograph reproduced above, followed by a quotation (dated “July 13”) from Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day:

Shedding all conventional theatricality the image discloses a hidden logic: the visibility of the war has depended upon the invisibility of exactly the uncanny relation represented here.

And this was followed in turn by a sentence of Dahlen’s own, incorporating a quote from Kristeva:

the invisibility of the war a secret context at the boundary between apocalypse and carnival, “the pit where what speaks is a strange rent between an ego and an other — between nothing and all.”

Followed in turn by a Dickinson poem: “‘Tis so appalling — it exhilarates—.”

That sequence of statements and quotations, juxtapositions and inferences, served as my guide for many years.

I do have one minor quibble with Richards’ essay, which I mention only because it touches on an issue that’s perplexed me in my own writing: how to meaningfully distinguish the Civil War poetry of Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson from that of their contemporaries. For I do feel — and recent anthologies would seem to bear this out — that those three poets produced the most significant bodies of work in response to the war. Is there a way to conceptualize that significance without exaggerating the differences? Richards tries to do so by calling Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson “experimental” and all the others “popular,” terms that generally suggest a difference of audience or medium. [3] As defined by Richards, the terms also emphasize composition date and project:

The term “popular” refers to poetry that circulated broadly during the war, shaping and responding immediately to the struggle. “Experimental” refers to poems that appeared largely in the immediate aftermath of the war and that, rather than seeking political and social influence through wide circulation, primarily explored the ways in which poetic expression must accommodate the effect of wartime “impressions.”

Part of the problem, I think, is that Richards wants to posit a distinction and trouble it at the same time. Her examples show that the “popular” poets were also engaged in coming to terms with the new nature of war, and also that the explorations of the “experimental” poets were a way of shaping and responding to struggle (if not the struggle between North and South, then the struggle to bend new technologies into service).

So far as circulation goes: I’m not entirely convinced that the examples chosen by Richards highlight a difference. Did George Henry Boker really enjoy a wider audience than Whitman? His biography is a tale of disappointment at least as bitter as Melville’s. Are the venues where the “popular” work appeared really so different in kind from Melville’s Harper & Brothers? Whitman was self-published, but he certainly had access to the press. He did publish “Beat! Beat! Drums!” in Harper’s Weekly.

This then leaves the issue of date. But if a post-war date of composition or publication is the principal means of distinguishing Melville and Whitman from such equally ambitious literary figures as Lucy Larcom or Boker — the former published in the elite journal Atlantic Monthly, the latter by the prestigious Ticknor & Fields — it would seem that the entire category of “popular Civil War poet” would have to be abandoned once the war ended.

But all this is pretty minor. Categorizing is a thankless task, and yet a useful one even when it fails, as it helps one to sort through the issues. What the sorting reveals in this instance is a corroboration of Richards’ key point — that the line dividing Whitman and Melville from other Civil War poets is fuzzier than literary historians have imagined.

That fuzziness is, in Richards’ account, the fog of modernity, slowly burnt away over the battlefield. I’m finding that a very helpful way of thinking.


1 [Back to text] The essay used by Richards, “Bread and the Newspaper,” first appeared in Atlantic Monthly 8 (September 1861): 346-52. Hoffman relies on “My Hunt after ‘The Captain,'” from Atlantic Monthly 10 (December 1862): 738-64. Both essays also appear in Holmes’s Soundings from the Atlantic (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864). Fahs and Nudelman rely on an unpublished lecture. Holmes’s prose in general is the subject of a fine book by Michael Weinstein.

2 [Back to text] The reproduction here comes from Selected Civil War Photographs, a website maintained by the Library of Congress.

3 [Back to text] The popular poets in the essay are, in addition to one unknown author who appeared in Harper’s Weekly, Lucy Larcom, Elizabeth Akers Allen, Julia Ward Howe, James Sloan Gibbons, and George Henry Boker.


Written by Ben Friedlander

March 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

5 Responses

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  1. This post’s so you, Ben–loved it, and learned from it.

    Is that Ironwood piece of Dahlen’s available anywhere online?

    rodney k.

    March 27, 2010 at 12:51 pm

  2. Jesus, that was a great issue of Ironwood: half Dickinson, half Spicer, wholly ghost… I can find used copies for sale online but no friendly pirates as of yet.

    Ray Davis

    March 27, 2010 at 8:46 pm

  3. Ben, I teach a grad Dickinson seminar. One of my students is doing a paper on ED and the Civil War as a result of my including your article in my reader. He may contact you.

    Gloria Frym

    March 29, 2010 at 1:27 am

  4. Gloria: That’s great to hear!

    Ray, Rodney: It really is too bad this issue isn’t archived somewhere.

    Ben Friedlander

    March 29, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    • Rodney, Ray, I might could get a student to scan the issue, as I’ve had it since it came out. But one really wants it as it was, no? Better to buy it on line. It’s a gem. And more so because Spicer reviewed the 1955 Thomas Johnson edition of ED while working at the Boston Public Library as John Spicer. He was perhaps the only poet of his time who truly understood ED.

      Gloria Frym

      March 29, 2010 at 7:37 pm

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