The poet’s relationship with his brothers, one of whom saw heavy fighting during the Civil War.
Novelist and journalist Roper (Fatal Mountaineer, 2002, etc.) takes an inside look into the Whitman family with a special focus on the war years, when Walt’s younger brother George served with the 51st New York Volunteers. The book opens with a glimpse at the family’s early life, when Walt Sr. worked as a house carpenter, building homes that the family would live in while he found a buyer. Much of that time was spent in Brooklyn, where his widow Louisa continued to live during the war. The 51st fought in 21 battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg and the Wilderness, so the family was constantly worried about George’s welfare. His brother’s involvement was at least part of the reason Walt spent much of the war in the nation’s capital tending to wounded Union soldiers. Another reason, Roper argues, was his attraction to the young men, some of whom may well have become his sexual partners. The author buttresses his argument by reproducing lists of men’s names Whitman compiled at several points in his life and quoting from the letters the poet wrote to some of the soldiers. George rose through the ranks to become captain of his company, and the family’s concern for him was always paramount. Roper quotes extensively from letters sent back and forth; some of the correspondence between the poet and his mother provides a refreshingly unvarnished view of Walt’s character. The account of George’s career, sometimes in the words of his own letters, reveals his casual bravery and lack of military ambition. His capture and imprisonment (with most of his unit) gave Walt a burning cause in the latter days of the war: fighting Grant’s policy of refusing to exchange Confederate captives until the South released the black Union soldiers it had captured.
Densely detailed and sometimes slow going, but sheds a fresh light on many aspects of Whitman’s life and career.