The Better Angel

The Better Angel : Walt Whitman in the Civil War

4.26 (115 ratings by Goodreads)
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On May 26, 1863, Walt Whitman wrote to his mother: "O the sad, sad things I see - the noble young men with legs and arms taken off - the deaths - the sick weakness, sicker than death, that some endure, after amputations...just flickering alive, and O so deathly weak and sick." For nearly three years, Whitman immersed himself in the devastation of the Civil War, tending to thousands of wounded soldiers and recording his experience with immediacy and compassion. In this book, biographer Roy Morris, Jr. gives us an account of Whitman's profoundly transformative Civil War Years and an historically important examination of the Union's treatment of its sick and wounded. Whitman was mired in depression as the war began, subsisting on journalistic hackwork, wasting his nights in New York's seedy bohemian underground, his "great career" as a poet apparently stalled. But when news came that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman rushed south to find him. Though his brother's injury was slight, Whitman was deeply affected by his first view of the war's more

Product details

  • Hardback | 280 pages
  • 149.86 x 210.82 x 25.4mm | 476.27g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 13ill.
  • 0195124820
  • 9780195124828

Review Text

Biographer Morris (Ambrose Bierce, 1995, etc.) explores Walt Whitmans relationships with family, friends, soldiersand ultimately with Americathrough the context of the Civil War. Morris raises the curtain on Whitmans 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 Yorks literati). The advent of the Civil War and the subsequent enlistment and wounding of Whitmans brother moved him to rush to the military hospitals around Washington, DC. Although his brothers wound was slight, Whitmans 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 Morriss study is well-researched and beautifully written, his biographical readings of Whitmans poems are of limited use. Morris effectively integrates the poetry into his narrative, demonstrating the redemptive effects of the war experiences on Whitmans personal life. Unfortunately, Morris fails (particularly in his consideration of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomd) 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 Whitmans Civil War years to date. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

About Ray Morris

Roy Morris Jr. is a native of Chatanooga, Tennessee. He is the author of Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan and Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad more

Review quote

"This deftly written, almost unbearably moving book serves us to remind us powerfully of the horrors faced by the wounded on the Civil War battlefields, of the genius and compassion of Walt Whitman in dealing with them, and of the remarkable skill of one of America's most accomplished biographers in researching and telling so poignant a story."--Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and The Madman"The Better Angel illuminates Walt Whitman's Civil War years with frankness and compassion. Its insights and compelling narrative afford us new and humanly rich understandings of the poet and his vision of America."-- Robert H. Abzug, author of Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination and Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps"Roy Morris, Jr.'s elegant and moving book shows how the great civil war that redeemed the nation's soul also reawakened the soul of the nation's greatest poet, Walt Whitman. It is essential reading for everyone who cares about American culture."--Sean Wilentz, Princeton University, author of Chants Democratic and The Kingdom of Matthiasshow more

Rating details

115 ratings
4.26 out of 5 stars
5 43% (49)
4 44% (51)
3 10% (12)
2 3% (3)
1 0% (0)
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