Max Cavitch on Whitman's labors
My Penn colleague Max Cavitch sent me this response to a recent New York Times editorial, "Whtiman the Scrivener," which praised Kenneth Price's research finding of "Whitman’s handwriting and his signature initials on documents he copied during his Washington day job as a government clerk. 'A prodigious amount of material,' said Mr. Price, who is at about 3,000 documents and searching for more. They give the lie to tales of Whitman’s being a slacker of a bureaucrat when he hand-duplicated the letters and memos of government officials. ..."
Argghh. That NYT "Whitman the Scrivener" piece made my blood boil. Seeking to "redeem" him from the charge of being a slacker in his low-level bureaucratic post is dumb but innocuous enough. But, unforgivably, the article gives barely a nod to the time Whitman spent in the wartime hospitals, and characterizes that time only — and again, just fleetingly, and as if in contradistinction to legitimate work (i.e. being an industrious low-level bureaucrat?!) — in relation to the letter-writing he did for soldiers. That letter-writing for the soldiers in and of itself was time-consuming and physically and emotionally exhausting for Whitman. But he in fact wore himself to the bone and made himself incurably ill by spending, not his "leisure time," but every spare moment in those horrific disease-ridden wards, not just writing letters but also doing a full range of nursing and servant duties: cleaning hideous wounds, bathing filthy bodies, running errands for patients and hospital staff alike, and, of course, talking with and comforting for hours on end thousands of mangled, diseased teens and 20-somethings in unspeakable agony, in the absence of antiseptics, effective medicine, adequate physician and trained nursing staffs, and virtually any effective painkillers. He volunteered to serve in hell, basically, and for the rest of his life paid the price in illness and disability. Is that not worth a mention? Shame on Kenneth Price, who knows better; and shame on the Times, for missing, as is its wont, the most important part of the story — which most readers of the Times (unlike Price and other Whitman scholars and devotees) don't already know. (Oh, and then there's the fact that, during these same years, he was writing some of the greatest poetry and prose of the 19th century--not that that's like work or anything.)