Wednesday, May 23, 2018
May 23, 2018: Nursing Histories: Walt Whitman
[On May 21st, 1881, Clara Barton founded the American National Red Cross. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and contexts related to nursing and medical aid, starting with my colleague and friend Irene’s Guest Post on Barton herself! Add your responses and thoughts for a healthy crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On three texts through which Whitman wrote about his Civil War experiences as a volunteer nurse.
1) “The Great Army of the Sick” (1863): Only two months into his nursing experiences, Whitman penned this article for the New York Times, describing at length the conditions in the war hospitals, using the example of one particular wounded soldier to both detail the war’s horrors and make a case for the vital role nurses could play in helping the soldiers recover, and sharing his perspective on the overarching challenges and value of this work. Perhaps the most interesting line comes toward the end: “The army is very young—and so much more American than I supposed.” As often with Whitman, I’m not entirely sure what he means, but I suspect it might have to do with the variety and diversity of the young men Whitman encountered.
2) Drum-Taps (1865): A book of poems about and inspired by the war and his experiences in it, Drum-Taps is not in any specific way focused on nursing or the hospital settings or wounded soldiers. But besides being published after Whitman’s nearly three years of work as a nurse, and so clearly a response to that stage of his life and career, the book also includes particular poems like “The Dresser” (later retitled “The Wound-Dresser”) with lines like, “Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,/Straight and swift to my wounded I go”; or “Hymn of Dead Soldiers,” undoubtedly inspired by all the wounded Whitman had been unable to save. This is Whitman’s Civil War book, and Whitman’s Civil War was in the hospitals.
3) Memoranda During the War (1875): A decade after the war and his experiences there ended, Whitman wrote this autobiographical and sociological study of that time, expanding greatly on “The Great Army of the Sick” but adding many other layers as well. The book’s thesis can be summed up by this early quote: “I know not how it may have been, or may be, to others—to me the main interest of the War, I found, (and still, on recollection, find,) in those specimens, and in the ambulance, the Hospital, and even the dead on the field. To me, the points illustrating the latent Personal Character and eligibilities of These States, in the two or three millions of American young and middle-aged men, North and South, embodied in the armies—and especially the one-third or one-fourth of their number, stricken by wounds or disease at some time in the course of the contest—were of more significance even than the Political interests involved.” It’s a powerful idea, and a compelling way to make Whitman’s nursing experiences into a symbolic emblem of the war’s participants, victims, ideals, and effects.
Next nursing post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other nursing or medical histories you’d highlight?