English, Department of


Date of this Version



Leviathan Vol. 16.1 (2014): 121-134


© 2014 The Melville Society and The Johns Hopkins University Press. Used by permission.


Walt Whitman famously described his visits to thousands of wounded Civil War soldiers in Memoranda During the War, a volume with a largely ignored subtitle: "Written on the Spot in 1863-'65." I want to highlight that subtitle and its emphasis on space and time-its geo-temporal specificity-to ask what it meant to have a writer of Whitman's sensibilities thrust into the nation's capital city in the final three years of the war, when it had become a city of hospitals. More wounded soldiers were treated in Washington, DC, than in any other city, and Whitman, a visitor to dozens of hospitals, gravitated toward the epicenter of suffering. He spent most of his time at Armory Square Hospital, which hosted the worst cases and had the highest death rate. At a time of unprecedented maiming and killing, Whitman engaged in the work of healing. Leaves of Grass, his poetic masterpiece, intertwined the physical bodies of men and women and the symbolic body of the nation and saw in both a capacity to embrace contradictions and diversity while still remaining united and whole. Both the nation and Whitman's poetic project were at risk as he confronted innumerable broken and battered bodies. In this new context, he reassessed the possibilities for poetry, the future of democracy, and even the efficacy of affection, a quality that he had always believed sustained civil society. Faced with massive destruction, in what ways did Whitman succeed and fail in making meaning of it, in finding reasons for hope?