The Body Electric: Walt Whitman’s Muse was a Confederate Soldier?

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Walt Whitman in 1855 (ow, ow!)

Poets are among the strangest writers of all. I know because I am one. Endlessly curious about the depths of human emotion, inappropriately inquisitive, and heartily obsessed with both surface and interior, our ways of interacting with the world can really give people the wrong idea. But– hear ye– the endgame of our experimental behavior occurs on the page. I cannot pretend to know the full meaning of what it is to be built this way. But I shall try, using the poet Walt Whitman.

TIME: MID-CIVIL-WAR
PLACE: AMERICA
LAWS AND SOCIAL CUSTOMS: MEN + MEN = NO
MAIN CHARACTER: WALT WHITMAN, FATHER OF AMERICAN POETRY
SUPPORTING ROLE: PETER DOYLE, CONFEDERATE SOLDIER AND WHITMAN MUSE

It’s the 1800s, it’s the middle of the American Civil War, and Walt Whitman is slowly establishing himself as the most talented poet in American history. Europeans are wild about him, even President Abraham Lincoln would become a crazed fan. Whence did Whitman draw his inspiration for works that attracted fans both hippie and stately?

You guessed it: War.

“The blood of the world has fill’d me full—my theme is
     clear at last:
  I hear from above, O pennant of war, your ironical call
and demand;”
                -Whitman, “Song of the Banner at Day-Break”, 1865

In a delightful piece available here by scholar Angel Price of the University of Virginia, I learned that Whitman’s life was closely shaped by the happenings of the American Civil War, which in turn influenced his psychology and provided poetic fuel.

“I chant this chant of my silent soul, in the name of all
dead soldiers.”
-Walt Whitman, 1865

Picture this: a young Walt Whitman, vagabond and self-proclaimed American Bard, listening to traumatized young soldiers after the American Civil War at their hospital bedsides, soaking in their stories, weaving them into verse for his 1865 work, Drum-Taps.

Oh, I have pictured it.

Whitman and war, you say? You thought he was all about dick innuendo and poems taking place at the entrance of the birth canal (see “Song of Myself,” section 49)?

“Whitman was patriotic but also free from society’s restrictions; he was not bound by class and reflected endless possibility within one’s self.”

-Angel Price, University of Virginia

Who was the liberal, freethinking, highly bisexual Whitman’s designated muse? Oh, just a former Confederate soldier Peter Doyle, who was quite cooperative with curious historians after Whitman’s death. In other words, we have a lot to go on here.

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“Who you callin’ gay?”  Walt Whitman (Northern Bard) and Peter Doyle (Confederate Soldier and Whitman muse), circa 1869.

Mostly, I found it sad that Doyle was clearly highly traumatized from his time spent in combat: he refused to talk about that aspect of his life with historians, ever. Wounded in the bloody, Union-won Battle of Antietam in Maryland, Whitman’s future muse sought to be discharged from the Confederate Army in 1862. No doubt he was weary both physically and mentally. Men typically seek to exit the service when they have seen one too many grisly things.

Whitman met Doyle when Doyle was working as a car conductor in Washington, D.C. But it wasn’t the typical taxi experience: it was holy. Peter Doyle described the encounter to a historian:

“You ask where I first met him? It is a curious story. We felt to each other at once. I was a conductor. Walt had his blanket it was thrown round his shoulders he seemed like an old sea-captain. He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him”

-Peter Doyle, on first meeting Walt Whitman in 1865

Poets are observers. What we crave: that which is most human. Our personal relationships are more precious than our belongings. Whitman’s attachment to Doyle was not only personal, but historic: as a poet, you choose your muse both intuitively and consciously, and always very carefully. Whitman chose someone who had seen the worst of all human behavior, fought for the “wrong” side, and survived it.

Whitman himself confirms Doyle’s influence on not just Drum-Taps, but Leaves of Grass, which is considered a holy text in the world of poetry.

“[Pete and I] would walk together for miles and miles, never sated. Often we would go on for some time without a word, then talk—Pete a rod ahead or I a rod ahead…It was a great, a precious, a memorable experience. To get the ensemble of Leaves of Grass you have got to include such things as these—the walks, Pete’s friendship: yes, such things: they are absolutely necessary to the completion of the story.”

-Whitman, as told to historian Horace Traubel

To Peter Doyle, the Confederate veteran whose jaunts with Whitman inspired a book of poetry that moves me to tears and makes me want to throw up in the best possible way… cheers.

Writers at War: George Orwell

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Englishman George Orwell’s ode to his time spent fighting in the Spanish Civil War

It’s no surprise in our post-truth era of election meddling and browser history blackmail that George Orwell’s prose has come back into vogue. To sound minds, the term “Orwellian nightmare” has become embraced as shorthand for what is happening right now in America.

But who was the man behind the writer? What did he see during his life to give his work such prescience?

Did he come back from Iraq, trap a girl in his basement, and force her to take psychedelic mushrooms (a personal domestic violence story for another time– OR NOT)?

Well, no.

But George Orwell, born Eric Blair to British parents in colonized India, was a citizen of the world. After his adolescent schooling in England, Orwell’s family was too poor to send him to university, and he never fully set permanent roots thereafter. In 1922, he became a cop in his homeland of India at age 19. Then, from ages 24 and 28, he became the original modern vagabond writer in Paris and later London, taking odd writing gigs to barely pay the rent (see Down and Out in Paris and London.) Then a private school teacher, and a secondhand bookshop clerk.

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Then, 1936. Between the World Wars, the hunger to see combat– physical war among men– strikes Orwell, a hunger similar to that of Fitzgerald or Hemingway 20 years before him. Orwell heads unsummoned to Spain, joins the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), a Marx-reading, anti-Stalinist gang of Spanish militants in a fledgling civil war against dictator Francisco Franco’s fascist policies. Ever a man of grandiose ideology, Orwell claimed he fought in the Spanish Civil War to protest fascism. However, I speculate that he just wanted to be near the “action”– to blend in, gonzo-style, see war up close, and then, to write about it.

“Once again the conquering-hero stuff–shouting and enthusiasm, red flags and red and black flags everywhere, friendly crowds thronging the pavement to have a look at us, women waving from the windows. How natural it all seemed then; how remote and improbable now!”

-Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, 1938

Like Hemingway before him, Orwell suffered a life-changing injury whilst warring abroad. In 1937, Orwell was shot in the throat by a sniper when he failed to hide his lanky frame fully and was sticking out of the trench (eyeroll.) This neck wound required months of recovery and, one might guess, a significant period of reflection. Perhaps receiving these grave marks of war made these writers feel like legitimate veterans, lending authenticity, and authority, to their voices on the page.

What is the connection between war and great, doomed literary men? Are they just a bunch of brave-ass, madcap social chemists donning foreign uniforms, ignorant of the immortal fame their written insights will inspire?

Or, do they know ahead of time how good they are, and take the risk that fate will see them through the gunfire? “No one joins the military because they value their life,” claims my infantry soldier boyfriend.

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Orwell with Burmese sword

Many writers have an inborn fascination with war, as it represents, among other things, some classic brands of strife, e.g. the superiority of machine to man, or the marginalization of the human drama in favor of a worldwide narrative. War in general brings about all sorts of existentialist repercussions and questions of moral calculus. Lots to unpack.

Basically, guys like Hemingway and Orwell have an eye for story and a knack for sacrificing their own safety for their art. Like when Hannah gets HPV on Girls.

Further Reading:

Free e-book, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938)

Free article, “Spain through Orwell’s Eyes” by Jared Spears (01 May 2017)

The POG and the Grunt: Debunking Hemingway’s Authority on War

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2nd Lt. US Infantry

After patiently listening to me talk about the reputations of American writers, my infantry soldier boyfriend quipped, “Why did the real soldier [F. Scott Fitzgerald, 2nd Lt. Infantry]  live in shame, while the fake soldier [Ernest Hemingway, Red Cross POG] lived in fame?”

His remark sparked a personal intellectual firestorm, and, after doing some more research into their backgrounds, I realized that their reputations in history are reversed:  During WWI, Ernest Hemingway was actually just a POG for the Italian army, not the front-lines-hero his fiction would have you believe; and, though he never saw combat, Fitzgerald was an American infantry lieutenant.

Historically, Hemingway is seen as an authority on war, known for his bravery during World War I. Fitzgerald is seen as someone with comparatively little military experience. This is actually extremely misleading. Sure, Fitzgerald never deployed, a fact which he let emasculate him for the rest of his life. But Hemingway never deployed either, at least not with the U.S.; he was rejected when he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army (bad eyesight), so he joined the Red Cross and went overseas, ultimately serving on the Italian front; Fitzgerald actually dropped out of Princeton to enlist successfully in the U.S. Army, being immediately commissioned as an infantry second lieutenant, arguably one of the most elite jobs in the entire officer corps.

Hemingway, non-soldier, with anonymous gun.

Hemingway was not the American hero his fiction would have you believe; Fitzgerald is the only real soldier here. Yes, Hemingway was injured overseas and yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald did not see combat. But Fitzgerald was actually in the Army; not Hem. One could feasibly speculate that Fitzgerald, a man trained in combat tactics at the WWI Army training facility Camp Sheriden in Montgomery, Alabama, might actually have been a more authoritative source on military matters than Hemingway. Fitzgerald was the grunt who never got to do his job; Hemingway’s experience in Italy was just a red herring, one upon which he hung his career and used to establish his tough-guy rep.