The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War, by Roy Morris, Jr., Oxford University Press, New York, 2000, $25.
The style of a biography, to a certain extent, should fit the style of the person being examined. In The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, New York, 2000, $25), biographer Roy Morris, Jr., has produced a sensitive and well-written work that mirrors both the artistic skill and the sensitivity of America’s greatest poet during the years of our nation’s darkest conflict.
By concentrating on a relatively short period of Whitman’s life, Morris allows us to examine in detail a time to which other Whitman biographers have only given cursory attention. Whitman’s best years as a writer were already past when the Civil War began, but his best years as a human being had just begun. The first edition of his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, had been published more than half a decade earlier. And while Whitman later expanded Leaves to include some wartime and postwar poetry, he was mostly finished in his chosen profession by 1861.
Although Whitman’s poetic career was largely over when the war broke out, in some ways the most important years of his life had just begun. “The Civil War saved Walt Whitman,” Morris writes. “Saved was his word, and like all great poets, Whitman chose his language carefully.” As Morris eloquently points out, it is not difficult to understand why Whitman felt that way. Like two of the Union’s greatest commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, both of whom struggled with depression and failure in the prewar Army yet found lasting fame and glory on the battlefields of that war, Whitman found that the nation’s deadliest conflict had ironically given him a second chance at life.
In the years immediately preceding the first shots at Fort Sumter, Whitman was jobless, broke and a regular fixture in the dark pubs of New York’s scandalous Greenwich Village. Morris effectively demonstrates to the reader the many personal crises Whitman faced as he drank away his life among notorious bohemian friends. After the war began, however, Whitman found his way to Washington, D.C., and soon became a regular volunteer in the many military hospitals located in the nation’s capital. It was there that his road to salvation began.
The Better Angel does a wonderful job of describing how Whitman was something of a “better angel” to the sick and wounded young men in the fever-ridden hospitals. Preparing for his daily visits to the hospital “as carefully as a general prepares for a battle,” writes Morris, Whitman brought the soldiers small gifts of food, clothing, paper and tobacco–and the larger gift of his own “magnetic, consoling presence.”
For the next three years, even as his own health began to deteriorate in the dangerously unhygienic world of the hospitals, Whitman personally visited between 80,000 and 100,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate, in the three dozen hospitals in and around Washington. And though the poet found his visits therapeutic–to himself as well as to the soldiers–Whitman’s time in Washington was not without its traumatic scenes. “O the sad, sad things I see,” he wrote, “the noble young men with legs and arms taken off–the deaths–the sick weakness, sicker than death, that some endure, after amputations…just flickering alive, and O so deathly weak and sick.”
The Better Angel, like Morris’ two previous biographies, matches words to subject with a careful eye. Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan, Morris’ first work, was a solid and consistent biography about a solid and consistent soldier. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, on the other hand, was witty, insightful and sometimes biting–notable characteristics of Bierce’s own work. Both Phil Sheridan and Ambrose Bierce were warriors who saw extensive combat during the Civil War. Walt Whitman was not. Yet as Morris points out, “his lack of military experience…did not prevent Whitman from serving the Union cause as wholeheartedly as…any other frontline soldier.” His weapon was hope, and his ammunition was kindness. As Morris concludes in his introduction, “If [Whitman] was not literally an angel–and he never claimed he was–he was a more than passable substitute.”
For all his clear admiration of Whitman as a man, however, Morris does not sugarcoat the poet’s unenlightened racial views. Like most Northern and Southern whites of the time, Whitman was an unrepentant racist; he did not support legal and social equality for American blacks. Yet the author is careful to contrast those views with Whitman’s personal sympathy for all men, black or white. Morris also does a good job of describing Whitman’s other defining characteristic: his homosexuality. Unlike many modern writers who seek to recreate Whitman as a 19th-century gay rights crusader, Morris places Whitman’s homosexuality in its proper context, accurately and unemotionally describing the poet’s struggles with his sexual preferences in the context of an age that, for all its problems, was more “live and let live” than our own highly politicized time.
The Better Angel does two things, and does them equally well. First, it presents Walt Whitman both as a man and a poet during the most important time of his life. And second, it gives a skillful and accurate portrait of life in America during its darkest era. As such, it is a book to be celebrated, both by those actively interested in the Civil War and by those who simply want to learn more about a towering icon of American literature.
William L. Anderson