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01.07.09

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Phaedra

Now the Drum Of War

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


THE HORRORS of Civil War combat were of an order of terrible magnitude never seen before. At times, all one could do when faced with the shattered victims was make a "case for administering to the affections first," as poet Walt Whitman wrote in a news dispatch. Whitman spent the war years bringing the comfort of words, physical contact and small gifts like tobacco, spiced cherries and writing paper to Union soldiers in military hospitals. Most of all, perhaps, he facilitated letters home to worried parents, and when the time came, he wrote tender missives telling mothers and fathers of the last hours of their sons.

He was, as Robert Roper writes in Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War, a "spirit-nurse" and "the great facilitator of Civil War correspondence." His nonreligious ministry was an outgrowth of his poetic urge to bind up and express the vitality of the American scene in free verse. Whitman's tenderness toward young men in trauma, sometimes on the brink of death, was also infused with erotic currents. Whitman could be discreet, especially when he revised Leaves of Grass, but his homosexuality informed his feelings for the suffering men whose hands he held and brows he caressed, a complex point that Roper discusses with sympathy and clarity. He picks up an interesting angle when he notes that several female nurses were deeply suspicious of the middle-aged poet's intentions on the wards. But Whitman recognized something that few writers of that era or after did: the Civil War's true meaning lay in the "valor of suffering—not of men firing rifles," and certainly not in the fascination with battles and troop movements that has dominated Civil War studies.

The book, despite its subtitle, is really devoted to Walt Whitman, but Roper does bring to life Walt's younger brother George, who fought in most of the major battles of the war, almost miraculously surviving serious injury. Brother Jeff was on his way to a brilliant career as an engineer of major public works projects in New York and St. Louis. Sadly, another brother died early, and one went mad. This "troubled, brilliant, poor, aspiring, declining, woefully afflicted, remarkably successful clan" wrote incessantly, giving Rope a treasure trove of letters—a "dense epistolary web"—to quote from and interpret. The author appears Tuesday (Jan. 13) at 7:30pm for a reading and booksigning at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. (By Robert Roper; Walker & Company; 432 pages; $28 hardback)


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