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Walt Whitman, the Civil War, and Suffering

Nostalgia. By Dennis McFarland. 318 pages. $25.95.


The word nostalgia, as McFarland points out, comes from the Greek nostos, meaning return home, + algos, meaning pain. During the American civil war, nostalgia was the word used to describe a condition we would today call shell shock or combat fatigue or combat stress reaction. It is the reaction of men (or women) to intense bombardment or combat. It produces feelings of helplessness, panic, fear, sometimes flight, often the inability to sleep, eat, hear, walk or even talk. Today, we understand that the reaction is involuntary, but such understanding was unavailable in the 1860s, and men who suffered from combat stress were often branded cowards or malingerers, and some were executed. (As late as World War I, the British army shot for cowardice men who suffered from shell shock--see Pat Barker's 1991 novel, Regeneration on the gradual understanding of the condition. During World War II, General Patton so completely misunderstood the condition that he nearly lost his command for slapping an afflicted soldier in a field hospital.)

In this novel, the central character, Summerfield Hayes, is a young, educated, upper middle-class Brooklynite, who has recently lost both mother and father in a bizarre accident while they are traveling in Europe. It is the winter of 1864, and Hayes, a fine athlete and star pitcher for the Eckford Baseball Club, has decided to enlist in the Union army, much against the wishes of his sister, with whom he lives in their parent’s home and for whom he has what might be termed unnatural feelings.

During the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864), a bloody, inconclusive battle that was part of Grant’s war of attrition against Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, Summerfield Hayes sees his friends killed, is cannonaded, fights and himself kills others. After the battle, certain that he is about to die of his wounds, he is abandoned by an uncaring sergeant.

But he survives, ending up in a military hospital next to a stinking sewer, where mute, unable even to write, he watches men around him suffer and die, is bullied by a Union Army officer who thinks Hayes is a deserter and a malingerer, and meets a girl, a young, attractive nurse. He also meets the good, gray poet himself, Walt Whitman, who, during the Civil War, worked in the hospitals around Washington, D.C. as a nurse, treating the wounded soldiers to small gifts of oranges and candy, writing letters for them, reading to them, sometimes holding them in his arms as they died. (For more on Whitman’s war time work, see The Sacrificial Years: A Chronicle of Walt Whitman’s Experiences in the Civil War, edited by John Harmon McElroy.)

This use of historical persons as fictional characters seems to be sort of a trend nowadays, and in this case, it works quite well. The Whitman we meet in this highly poetic novel seems to be the Whitman we know from the poetry, loving, generous, high-minded. But he is not the main character, Summerfield Hayes is, and most of the novel is the story of his ordeal in the hospital, struggling to regain his voice and reclaim his place in the world. Finally, he does regain that voice and return home, where he acts on his feelings toward his sister, is rebuffed, sees Whitman again, reads Emerson, hears from the girl, and begins playing baseball again. We think he is healed at last, but his wounds are at once both less than and more than they seemed.