Thursday, February 3, 2011

Nurse Whitman

In class it was mentioned that Walt Whitman was a nurse for soldiers during the Civil War. Intrigued by this, I set out to find an article on Walt Whitman and his nursing career, and how that might have influenced his writing. I settled upon the article “Whitman Found Salvation in Comforting Soldiers,” which was first printed locally in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. This article assigns Whitman’s reason for joining the nursing industry being the head injury of his brother George at the Battle of Fredericksburg, propelling Whitman to move to Washington and become a nurse. The article describes these next few years as “the richest period of his life as an artist and his greatest as a man” (Billingsley). Whitman not only tended to the wounded soldiers, but he also brought them amenities such as candy and writing supplies, as well as a sense of comfort to the men. Whitman also paid special attention to each soldier: he wrote down their needs, medications, and injuries.

It is known that Whitman was a homosexual, or as mentioned in class, he “preferred men.” The article states that while Whitman may have developed some feelings for the men he was taking care of, he never began nor sought a sexual or loving relationship with any of them. Since Whitman did not live in a time period where homosexuality is as accepted as it is today, I think that writing was his escape. Writing was a way for Whitman to freely express his sexual desires, in ways society might not have let him. In class we said that sex pervades everything. Everything is erotic, from horses to locomotives to even fresh air. In classic Whitman style, he takes his idea of sexuality and stretches it to the limits. The newspaper article also reports that Walt was never reported as actually having sex in his life. I truly believe that Whitman’s way of dealing with his sexual desires was through writing about them. Furthermore, a homosexual man surrounded by a plethora of men (injured or not), is likely to be tempted and develop sexual thoughts. Even so, I give a lot of respect to Whitman who kept his job as a nurse professional and did not mix “business with pleasure.”

One of the most incredible parts of the article to me was how the men showed thanks to Walt for what they considered to be saving their lives. “For decades after the war, he received dozens of letters addressed to ‘dear comrade,’ ‘dear father’ and ‘Uncle Walt’ that often spoke proudly of the birth of ‘our Baby Walt’” as a token of appreciation for Whitman (Billingsley). For the men who did not make it, after their deaths, Whitman would write a letter to the family of the soldier articulating his last moments alive. I think the amount of compassion show for each wounded individual was remarkable; in a hospital where personal connections were frowned upon, Whitman thrived on them. His belief that one solider is neither above nor more important than the next is confirmed in “Song of Myself.” In Whitman’s writing we see him pay this same amount of respect to animals and people of all kinds. The tortoise and mocking bird, as well as the prostitute and President, each get the same amount of space: one extremely long line.

The strongest critique I would make of our class discussion using the newspaper article would be how egotistic we portrayed Walt Whitman to be. He was described as being very arrogant and proud of it. This does not seem like the man willing to give up his own shoes and candy to soldiers in the hospital. Maybe Whitman’s writing portrays him as an over-the-top pompous man, but I think in real life he was quite the opposite. It seems that on the surface Walt Whitman can be considered to be on his high horse, but when he is not hiding behind his writing, Whitman is a humble man willing to do anything for his people.

Billingsley, Sarah. “Whitman Found Salvation in Comforting Soldiers.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 20 August 2000: G13. LexisNexis Academic. University Library System. University of Pittsburgh. 3 February 2011. .


  1. There's a fundamental problem here: the assignment called for a "scholarly article" from Pitt's library, which I strongly suggested you find using the MLA database. While this is, in a technical sense, from Pitt's library, it isn't a scholarly article - it's a newspaper article addressed to a casual audience, not an academic one.

    Given that fundamental problem, I think introducing Whitman-as-nurse is interesting, but also has its limits - because if you'd looked at the dates, you'd see that his time as a nurse came *after* he wrote our edition of "Song of Myself." So any conclusions you draw about "Song of Myself" are based on deductions (on the basis on a non-academic article!) about what the younger Whitman (that is, the one who wrote our version of the poem) *would have* have been like, based on his later service as a nurse.

    This material is not by any means uninteresting or irrelevant, but you needed to both pay more attention to the prompt itself, and to the *relationship*, including the chronological one, between Whitman's time as a nurse and his work as a poet.

  2. Hey Erin-

    I think your essay is well-written. I didn't notice, as Adam pointed out, that this was just a newspaper article and not a scholarly article, but nonetheless it was interesting. I would do some more reading if I were you though; you mention here that he didn't mix "business with pleasure," but I read somewhere that he often kissed the soldiers or became intimate with them. I'm not sure to what extent the intimacy went, but it would be worth mentioning/looking into more.

    Also, your opinion is very strong, but lacking much backing. If you think Whitman is humble, despite the arrogance he portrays in his writing, tell me more about why. Why should I agree with you?

    Last but not least, I think your connection to our own discussion was pretty good. That's where I went wrong on this one, but you directly linked the two. Cool!

    That's all...