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Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War Hardcover – October 28, 2008

4.3 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his astonishing frankness and sweep, Walt Whitman is the quintessential visionary American poet. His life spanned the beginnings of modern urbanization, the rupture of the Civil War and almost into the 20th century. In keeping with this larger-than-life figure, Roper (Fatal Mountaineer) skillfully weaves several books into one. Framed as an insightful literary critique, especially of Whitman's coded writings, as well as a biographical chronicle of his remarkable and dysfunctional family, the book is also a historical examination of Civil War battlefield traumas and tragedies, principally as the poet experienced them. At the center of the book, Roper focuses on Whitman's emotional relations with the young wounded soldiers he nursed, showing in effect that these homoerotic bonds can be seen as the semipaternal manifestation of his relationships with his much younger brothers, George Washington Whitman—with whom he was closest, and who had a distinguished war record—and Thomas Jefferson Whitman. The brothers of the subtitle refer not only to George and Jeff, but to the poet's many comrades. 35 b&w illus. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* “Now be a witness again—,” chanted Walt Whitman in resonant lines, “paint the mightiest armies of the earth.” In this groundbreaking study, Roper reveals the degree to which a poet famous for his depictions of the Civil War actually witnessed the carnage of clashing armies through the eyes of a younger brother, a daring Union officer. At Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Cold Harbor, George Whitman survived intense combat and then captured the harrowing ordeal in letters to his anxious mother and his two brothers, one an aspiring poet. In the correspondence between the seasoned soldier and his family, Roper locates the conduit for raw material artistically transformed by the acclaimed bard. Readers soon realize how profoundly George’s letters influenced Walt, who adroitly melded George’s accounts of torrid battles in his verse with his own experience as a visitor to military hospitals. But as Roper probes Walt’s poetry, he illuminates not only the writer’s abiding fraternal commitment to his decorated brother but also his transitory sexual ties to other men in and out of uniform. Behind the tangle of familial affections and sexual passions, readers discern the imaginative genius that wove very diverse strands into panoramic literature. Whitman’s many admirers will find here a wealth of insights. --Bryce Christensen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books; 1 edition (October 28, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802715532
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802715531
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,469,194 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By D. Knowlton on December 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Other reviewers have done an excellent job portraying the essence of Roper's new book, so I will keep my words to a minimum. The answer is "yes" - another biography, and yet, it's unlike any I have read thus far. It was refreshing to hear about the family relationships, especially about George and his military career, and the voluminous correspondence. The very thing that drew Walt south was, after all, George's wounding. Read alongside other authors, eg.: David Reynolds, Jerome Loving, Harold Bloom, Kenneth M. Price, Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, Dan Campion, and Sherry Ceniza, to mention just a few - this book adds a much appreciated dimension. You do not have to be a Whitmanian to enjoy this excellent book.

- a Whitmanian in Florida, raised in Huntington
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the best book written on the Civil War in a generation. The
author has plumbed the sources (from the National Archives and
elsewhere) and come back with a story like none other, a scrupulous
history that reads with the vivid intensity of a major novel. The
descriptions of actual battles, in which George Whitman, the poet
Whitman's brother, fought, are alone worth the price of admission.
Roper is interested in many things, and one of them is the bond of
devotion that connected Walt to his six brothers. They were the sons
of a large, impoverished, severely afflicted Brooklyn family, several
of whose members were uncommonly brilliant. Roper brings the Great
Mother who presided over this clan into deep focus. Mrs. Whitman has
heretofore been known as an illiterate slum matron, churlish and
embarrassing; here, that distorted and condescending portrait
undergoes a wonderful correction.
The book is profoundly moving yet written with stoic reserve. Think
of early Hemingway; think of Stephen Crane. Whitman spent the war
years working as a nurse in the hospitals on the Union side; brother
George, meanwhile, was a line officer fighting for survival in some
of the most searing battles in our history. George's war
experiences, put into letters from the front, fed Walt's poetry, and
among other things this book is a clear-eyed reassessment of Walt's
poetic achievement. The only problem with NOW THE DRUM OF WAR is
that it eventually ends. Readers caught up in its intensely real
recreation of the Civil War and the writing of the great literature
of that war will find themselves doling out its final pages sparingly
-- to turn the last one was, in my experience, to feel bereft.
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Format: Hardcover
Do our kids learn anything about Walt Whitman in school these days? Do they read any of the work of our nation's greatest poet? Sadly, these are questions worth asking.

A sizeable library of books on Whitman has accumulated since his death in 1892. He continues to provide grist for the lit-crit mills and the doctoral thesis industry. For those curious about Whitman's life or just enthralled by his wide-ranging poetic flights, there is a lot out there.

Journalist, historian and fiction writer Robert Roper has taken a slightly different tack in NOW THE DRUM OF WAR. While concentrating on the poet's well-known service as a sort of unofficial visiting nurse in the military hospitals around Washington during the Civil War, he also places Whitman within his family situation --- his aging mother back in Brooklyn, his six siblings, his early careers as house builder and journalist, and his once glossed over but now openly acknowledged identity as an open homosexual.

Roper's book is not a straightaway biography. It virtually ignores Whitman's childhood and devotes almost as much attention to his heroic soldier-brother George as it does to Walt himself. It is grounded largely in family letters, in Walt's own personal notebooks and in reminiscences of those who knew him both at home and in the military hospitals and camps. Roper sees him as "the war's most knowledgeable noncombatant."

Walt Whitman initially went south to visit George after the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, just one of a long string of major battles in which George performed heroic service under hails of shot and shell, while sustaining only one relatively minor wound.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd" is a great American poem. This book gives the reader an understanding of how this eulogy to Abraham Lincoln came to be.

The family of Walt Whitman was large, with talented members intermixed with sad cases. Here the author, Robert Roper, provides information on the family--with a focus on brothers Walt, the poet, and George, the soldier, and their mother--during the Civil War.

Those interested in learning more about the writing career (and love life) of Walt Whitman; the state of hospital care for those suffering from battle wounds; or one American family's experiences during the Civil War period will enjoy this book.
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Format: Hardcover
"Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not--the real war will never get in the books." - Walt Whitman, "Specimen Days"

A bibliography of all the books written about the American Civil War since its opening shots fired at Fort Sumter, would easily number in the hundreds of thousands. The Civil War is, by far and away, the most written about topic in American History, and though many have tried, with greater or lesser success, no one, not even those who lived through those four battle bloodied years, has been able to capture the horror of the "real war" in print as it was truly experienced by those who participated in it.

Robert Roper, in his book, "Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War," has pointedly circumnavigated Whitman's challenge to future historians by not writing a book specifically about the war. Rather than offering his readers a history of the Civil War, he has instead offered up a not only biography of Walt Whitman, but a biography of the whole Whitman family.

Walt Whitman came from a large, working-class family of Long Island, New York. He was the second of nine children born to Walter and Louisa (Van Velsor) Whitman, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Like many large families, some of the Whitman siblings remained but sad shadows in the light of their more talented and successful siblings. Though Mr. Roper concentrates on the more successful members of the family - Walt, the poet; George, the soldier; and Jeff, the engineer - his narrative does not neglect the lesser known individuals of the Whitman family.
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