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The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War Paperback – December 20, 2001

4.7 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Since the 1980sAwhen scholars such as Michael Moon and Robert K. Martin reinvigorated Walt Whitman scholarship by queering itAthe poet has inspired something of a literary cottage industry. Now Morris takes Whitman scholarship in a captivating new direction. In this study, the first complete account of the poet's Civil War years, Morris (Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company) shows how the War Between the States changed Whitman as a man and a poet. Indeed, in Morris's rendering, Whitman becomes a kind of metaphor for the country itself, a nearly transcendental signifier of American-style democracy and sexual freedom (though he was rather more ambivalent concerning the place of the "African" in American society). Whitman was, the author argues, depressed and adrift in New York's bohemia before the war; suffering from writer's block regarding his poetry, he occupied himself with journalistic hackwork. But when his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman found a cause that revived his sense of purpose: he spent three years visiting tens of thousands of wounded soldiers in and around Washington, D.C.Aand by the end of the war, he had become "the good gray poet," a larger-than-life figure Morris calls "almost mystical." The war, as Whitman himself acknowledged, "saved" him. His wartime experience inspired some of his best work, including the masterpiece "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." The postwar years also engendered a deep despair, however. Fearful that the nation had forgotten its soldiers in the heady days of the Gilded Age, the poet attacked "the post-war climate of graft and malaise." However despondent, Whitman produced important writing after the dust had cleared. The Better Angel enriches our understanding of his subsequent life and work. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

YA-Morris notes in his introduction that Whitman, no stranger to the practice of using precise vocabulary, claimed he was "saved" by the Civil War. The author explains his subject's salvation by tracing the effects of crisis and suffering on one man's spirit and artistry. Since this was also the man who articulated America's voice in his groundbreaking Leaves of Grass, Whitman's evolution personified that of the country he celebrated and loved. In 1860, the poet was feeling cynical and unfocused, mired in a "New York [s]tagnation." Then, following the bloody battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, word reached the Whitmans that Walt's brother had been wounded. Walt immediately left Brooklyn for Virginia, beginning the journey that would define the remainder of his life. While George's injury was slight, Walt's experiences with the Union's sick and wounded both revitalized and seasoned him. For the next several years this "great mothering sort of man," bearing small gifts and treats, comradeship and compassion, became a fixture in soldiers' hospitals. Morris's skills as a researcher are evident and his writing is first rate. Teens can read Better Angel as a moving introduction to Whitman, for its information on the home front and the medical profession during the Civil War, or to gain insight into the sociological and psychological aftermath of war on individuals or nations.
Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (December 20, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019514709X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195147094
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,617,861 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on August 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
While I am not a frequent reader of poetry, I am enamored with both History and Biography, and that is what drew my interest to "The Better Angel" by Mr. Roy Morris Jr. My knowledge of this Country's notable poets and their work is a void in my reading. Were there to be more books written in this manner it is a gap I believe that would be lessened.
I did not expect to read Mr. Whitman's work to any extent as I thought this was a biography of a time period in the poet's life. Mr. Morris does indeed share a great deal about a familiar name in American Literature; he also selectively uses the work of Mr. Whitman, and finally places it all within the context of the deadliest war this Country has ever fought.
Approximately 750,00 died in our Civil War. The numbers were so astronomically high due to the nature of the fighting, the ammunition used, and the medical profession's ignorance of even the most basic hygiene, infection, the inability to care for those wounded expeditiously, and the use of medicines that poisoned as often as they helped. Dysentery killed 100,000; one particularly virulent infection, Pyemia claimed 97.4% of those infected. Tetanus was also responsible for killing 89% of its victims. I take the space to mention these statistics, as this was the environment that Mr. Whitman made a major part of his life for years, and many consider this same commitment caused his lingering illnesses and finally his death.
While it is true he introduced many to ice cream, brought with him countless small gifts, including a requested toothpick, his time and the comfort he gave to these soldiers made him a hero to thousands forever. All too many times his act was to sit with the dying so that they did not do so alone.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a sensitively written biography covering in detail the life of America's greatest poet, Walt Whitman, during the Civil War years. This story of course has been told before, but never so completely, so lovingly. The author, Roy Morris, Jr. has done a superb job.
The first chapter gives some background and tells of Whitman's despair, wasting his time, his life in New York's seedy underground bohemian world, especially Pfaff's beer cellar. At 41, Whitman had lost his job as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times newspaper, and was in a depressing downward spiral, doing only sporadic hack work as a journalist. The Civil War had begun and his brother George had enlisted. When reports reached New York that George was wounded and in a Washington, DC hospital, Walt rushed to be by his brother's side. It was this event that brought Whitman face-to-face with the terrible wartime hospitals and to his beloved dying soldiers. This was the event that turned his life around, even perhaps saved his life as Whitman himself later reported.
Finding that his brother's wounds were slight, Whitman began visiting the battlefield wounded. Here he almost by accident found his calling as the "Better Angel" of the book's title: helping the soldiers, or sometimes just listening and comforting his boys with small gifts and favors. Whitman clearly loved the young soldiers he watched die miserable deaths in the dreadful hospitals. The soldiers clearly loved him in return. This book is written with such sympathy that the reader can feel the love leap of the pages.
Whitman was a prolific letter writer. Much of the story recounted here comes from letters he wrote, especially to his beloved mother.
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Two of America's most famous nineteenth-century authors wrote enduring memorials about the soldiers of the Civil War--yet neither author fought alongside their colleagues. One, Louisa May Alcott, became known to the American public when she published "Hospital Sketches," about her experiences as a nurse in the typhoid-ridden hospitals of Washington. The second, Walt Whitman, incorporated his hospital experiences as background for a series of poems he eventually included in "Drum Taps." Roy Morris's brief and incisive account of Whitman's unofficial role as a nurse is fascinating not only for the history it contains but for the poetry it elucidates.
Although Whitman himself never took up arms, he experienced the brunt of combat both first-hand, through his trips to the frontlines (to seek out his brother), and--more horrifically in many ways--through his kindly visits to wounded and dying soldiers. He patiently spent hours every day, volunteering wherever he was welcome, bringing gifts and sweets and writing letters home for the incapacitated. His vigils often lasted until the boys' deaths, and he would send emotional, plaintive letters to their parents. There can be no doubt that his attentions were appreciated; many veterans wrote to him for the rest of their lives, addressing him as "Father" or "Uncle," and several named their sons after him.
Although most of his benevolence was altruistic, there can also be little doubt that a few of the relationships "seems to have exceeded mere wartime camaraderie," as Morris phrases it. Before he fell in love with the Confederate deserter Peter Doyle in 1865, Whitman formed intimate (though not necessarily sexual) associations with many of his patients. At their extremes, the aftermaths of these friendships left him desolate and jealous.
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