America’s Poet During the Lost Years of 1860-1862
by Ted Genoways (’94)
224 pages | University of California Press, 2009 | $25
Perhaps no other American writer demands as much from his biographer as does Walt Whitman. The author of Leaves of Grass and its many revisions not only invented the modern American poem and its free verse but continually reinvented himself. Jerome Loving, author of Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, opens his acclaimed 1999 biography with a quote from the first Whitman biographer, John Burroughs, “Whitman is so hard to grasp, to put in a statement. One cannot get to the bottom of him... he is bottomed in Nature, in democracy, in science, in personality.”
Undaunted, Ted Genoways (’94) delved into one of the more elusive periods in Whitman’s life to produce his enlightening and highly readable study, Walt Whitman and the Civil War: America’s Poet During the Lost Years of 1860-1862.
The book’s subtitle references what had been a bit of a black hole in Whitman studies. Loving concedes in The Song of Himself, “The first two years of the Civil War are among the most obscure in the record of Whitman’s life... Whitman fairly disappears from all biographies between May 24, 1860... to December 16, 1862.” Genoways documents this historical moment and man, and brings to life with suspense and drama Whitman’s strengths, weaknesses and reactions to the Union’s severing.
Genoways was granted time away from his post as editor of the lauded Virginia Quarterly Review to revitalize and refocus his Whitman scholarship. Walt Whitman and the Civil War calls heavily on existing material as well as Whitman publications and writings which Genoways himself discovered. He reanimates those times, figures and places. He paints noble publishers pushed to the brink by the Civil War, bohemians trading barbs at Pfaff’s saloon in Greenwich Village, feuding newspapers, soldiers, slaves, abolitionists, the genteel minds of the ladies, George Washington Whitman, President Lincoln, battlefields, and hospitals, giving us an intimate view of Whitman’s world.
It’s fitting that Genoways’ work should take in such a broad swatch of America in those times. Each finely placed action and detail, supported by extensive research, is shown to weigh on Whitman, revealing him more with each step of the story. Whitman sought to encompass as much of his world as possible on his own carefully wrought terms. He was a public figure actively spinning his own identity, both the poetic and the personal, by writing anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass and editing, anonymously, his own biography. Nonetheless, the boldness and the brashness of his poetry, his direct and willing engagement with what America was, with who an American could be, is why he remains esteemed as “America’s poet.”
By spotlighting this brief period in Whitman’s life, Genoways more fully explores the myriad exigencies of those times. He presents them, very convincingly, as Whitman would have felt them. Walt Whitman and the Civil War fills a gap in Whitman scholarship and stands on its own as a riveting glimpse into young America’s most dire days.