The Better Angel

The Better Angel : Walt Whitman in the Civil War

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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 an immediacy and compassion unequaled in wartime literature anywhere in the world. In The Better Angel, acclaimed biographer Roy Morris, Jr. gives us the fullest accounting of Whitman's profoundly transformative Civil War Years and an historically invaluable 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 casualties. He began visiting the camp's wounded and, almost by accident, found his calling for the duration of the war. Three years later, he emerged as the war's "most unlikely hero," a living symbol of American democratic ideals of sharing and brotherhood. Instead of returning to Brooklyn as planned, Whitman continued to visit the wounded soldiers in the hospitals in and around the capital. He brought them ice cream, tobacco, brandy, books, magazines, pens and paper, wrote letters for those who were not able and offered to all the enormous healing influence of his sympathy and affection. Indeed, several soldiers claimed that Whitman had saved their lives. One noted that Whitman "seemed to have what everybody wanted" and added "When this old heathen came and gave me a pipe and tobacco, it was about the most joyful moment of my life." Another wrote that "There is many a soldier that never thinks of you but with emotions of the greatest gratitude." But if Whitman gave much to the soldiers, they in turn gave much to him. In witnessing their stoic suffering, in listening to their understated speech, and in being always in the presence of death, Whitman evolved the new and more direct poetic style that was to culminate in his masterpiece, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Brilliantly researched and beautifully written, The Better Angel explores a side of Whitman not fully examined before, one that greatly enriches our understanding of his later poetry. More than that, it gives us a vivid and unforgettable portrait of the "other army"-the legions of sick and wounded soldiers who are usually left in the shadowy background of Civil War history-seen here through the unflinching eyes of America's greatest more

Product details

  • Paperback | 288 pages
  • 133.4 x 202.4 x 20.1mm | 358.34g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • Revised ed.
  • 8pp halftones
  • 019514709X
  • 9780195147094

Review quote

A thrilling narrative told with empathy and vast learning, rich with images that reinvigorate figures as familiar as Lincoln.-The New York Times Book Review, Books in Brief The Civil War years were transformative for Walt Whitman, leading him to a new, more direct poetic style. In The Better Anger, acclaimed biographer Roy Morris Jr. presents the first full account of this period in Whitman's life.-Inside Borders Morris brings us in for a close, often harrowing look at the poet in a moment of national and personal crisis. He follows Whitman's descent into hell and reveals how the lifeblood of a nation of young men revitalized and reinvented the 'Good Gay Poet'-Out Magazine A particularly thorough and informative account of the poet's activities during the Civil War.-The Boston Book Review This pathbreaking study of Whitman's Civil War years reveals more facts-and a greater understanding-of the man than the vain, foppish poet-nurse that too many writers have sought to create.-James I. Robertson, Jr., author of Stonewall Jackson 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 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 Matthias 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 Brillantly researched and written, Morris' book gives a full account of poet Walt Whitman's profoundly transformative Civil War years. Through his tireless tending of the sick and wounded, Whitman found his true, compassionate poetic voice, and Morris' examination is an invaluable addition to Whitman scholarship.-ETC, Etcetera Magazine Morris's skills as a researcher are evident and his writing is first rate. Teens can read Better Angel as a moving introduction to Whitman, for its information on the home front and the medical profession during the Civil War, or to gain insight into the sociological and psychological aftermath of the war on individuals or nations.-School Library A thrilling narrative told with empathy and vast learning, rich with images that reinvigorate figures as familiar as Lincoln.-The New York Tiems Book Review In this first full account of Whitman's Civil War years, Morris leaves readers with a new image of what he calls `a great mothering sort of man' who visited the hospitals in and around Washington, D.C. for three years, bringing his charges ice cream, tobacco, brandy, books, magazines, pens, and paper; he wrote letters for those who could not, and more than a few died in his arms.-Library Journalshow more

About Roy Morris

Roy Morris, Jr. is the editor of America's Civil War magazine. He is the author of Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan and Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, and the editor of The Devil's Dictionary, (OUP). He lives in Chattanooga, 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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