THE BETTER ANGEL by Roy Morris

THE BETTER ANGEL

Walt Whitman in the Civil War

KIRKUS REVIEW

Biographer Morris (Ambrose Bierce, 1995, etc.) explores Walt Whitman’s relationships with family, friends, soldiers—and ultimately with America—through the context of the Civil War.

Morris raises the curtain on Whitman’s life in early 1861, portraying the poet as trapped between his career (producing journalistic hackwork to support his memorably dysfunctional family) and his milieu (living an unsatisfying bohemian life with New York’s literati). The advent of the Civil War and the subsequent enlistment and wounding of Whitman’s brother moved him to rush to the military hospitals around Washington, DC. Although his brother’s wound was slight, Whitman’s exposure to the other soldiers’ humble dignity (in spite of their extreme suffering) inspired him to spend much of the remaining war years comforting the wounded with visits and small gifts. Visiting battlefields, easing the soldiers’ physical pain, and suffering along with them all had a profound effect on Whitman and helped to reconnect him with the universality of the American experience. While Morris’s study is well-researched and beautifully written, his biographical readings of Whitman’s poems are of limited use. Morris effectively integrates the poetry into his narrative, demonstrating the redemptive effects of the war experiences on Whitman’s personal life. Unfortunately, Morris fails (particularly in his consideration of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”) to place his insights within the larger context of Whitman scholarship. Support from the well-thumbed body of Whitman criticism would have provided much-needed credibility to his purely biographical literary criticism. In spite of this drawback, however, Morris deftly balances general historical sources with insightful selections of correspondence and poetry to construct an important addition to the body of Whitman scholarship.

The most engaging and complete work on Whitman’s Civil War years to date.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-19-512482-0
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2000




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