First in a series by Rob Couteau
In Now the Drum of War, Robert Roper makes a unique contribution to the ever-growing body of Walt Whitman scholarship. His book features an in-depth exploration of Walt’s relationship with his siblings, and it maintains a special focus on his brother George, who served in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Roper casts a completely new light on these family ties, and he questions some long-held beliefs regarding the influence of Walt’s father and the characterization of his mother, Louisa, as being an unsophisticated illiterate. Drawing on the often visceral, earthy, and moving letters exchanged between Walt, George, and Louisa, Roper’s lyrical narrative depicts both the Whitman saga and the extraordinary events of the time.
Roper is the recipient of numerous awards for works of fiction and nonfiction. His Fatal Mountaineer, a biography of the climber-philosopher Willi Unsoeld, won the 2002 Boardman Tasker Prize. He currently teaches at John Hopkins University.
Rob Couteau: In your biography, you encourage us to rethink certain assumptions about the Whitman family. One is the so-called failure of Walt Whitman Sr. As you point out, although he wasn’t a millionaire, he always provided the essentials for a family of nine children, and he passed a number of valuable skills on to his sons.
Robert Roper: I was reading a little more generally about the social history of the early nineteenth century: the terrible destitution that people fell into after the panic of 1837 and other times. This was a cruel economic period, when all these skilled artisans are, for some reason, unable to feed their families. They don’t understand it, but they were falling through the cracks. An industrial economy was emerging, and the fact that you were skilled didn’t mean anything. In fact, it disabled you; it made you less resourceful in going where labor was needed, back and forth. So, the stories of fathers who really were failures – I mean, I don’t consider them as failures, but who couldn’t put bread on the table – are just legion. And somehow, the Whitmans always had a roof over their heads. And I thought it was interesting that Hannah, the favored sister, went to a fancy school. Probably, their fortunes waxed and waned, but basically the fact that nobody starved to death, and nobody succumbed to childhood tuberculosis: it’s all right.
And because he was trying to be a spec builder and making a few mistakes, the sons were smart in that way; George and Walt picked up on it and were successful at that. So, that’s kind of a success.
RC: You also point out that although Walt’s father was a heavy drinker, so were many working-class men of that day, because alcohol was safer than the unsanitary water in many of the polluted Brooklyn wells.
RR: As recently as the early twentieth century, workmen in the U.S. and in France drank two or three bottles of wine a day because the wine didn’t make them sick the way bad water did.
RC: You’ve done a great job of portraying Walt’s mother, Louisa, and of questioning the notion of her being a simple-minded illiterate. Instead, she served as a valuable sounding board for Walt. She was able to absorb and intelligently respond to his letters, especially his Civil War letters.
RR: Right. She was probably doing the same thing for George, although her letters to George at the front don’t survive. Over and over again, I saw Walt – in his letters to his mother and to the rest of the family – was just cheerful when he felt he could possibly pull it off. But sometimes he’d write a letter just for her, and he was being overwhelmed; he was breaking down psychologically. Her responses were very moving. And her grammatical way: she spoke exactly to it. You know: “I understand, Walt, how you’ve become fascinated with this difficult work, seeing the boys die.”
When I read the letters she wrote, and George wrote, and Walt wrote about, let’s say, George’s postwar-building career, she was right in on every aspect of it. She was smart about going into debt to finance construction, and she knew about gathering tools and buying the right kind of residential plots. She was just smart. And they came to trust her because, probably, the “old bat” was right.
RC: You show how George was closer to Walt than previous biographers have realized and that his writing was not without its merits.
RR: They were quite brotherly. I don’t know if you have brothers, but often people seem so heterogeneous in a family. Later, Walt made this comment that George was interested in pipes, not poems. And that was true. George read all of Walt’s poetry, but he was an entrepreneur and a contractor.
I found his letters really unusual in the amount of focused intelligence he brought to the problem of trying to understand the confusing, overwhelming battles he had just been in. It made me look at a lot of other Civil War correspondence. You see other soldiers trying to describe the battles they were in, but George’s descriptions are quite solid and detailed. When I went to the battlegrounds, they really held up as maps. You know, George says: “We got pinned down under withering fire by a little rise in the ground by a terribly muddy creek, and I had my face in the mud for three hours” – and I can find the creek! His descriptions and his surmises about what went wrong with battles were often what the Civil War historians say. So, besides having whatever the skills are of a warrior who survives, he also had a mind for battle.
Roper calls Whitman “a writer…intimate with thousands of wounded men and their personal stories, who yet appears not really to be listening.” In tomorrow’s installment, the two writers will explore that notion and how it might relate to Whitman’s attitudes about war.