Archive for February, 2011

I just saw it on CNN.com: Commentary: Don’t hold Obama to race agenda

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 27, 2011


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The Mecca of Black America

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 26, 2011

The Mecca of Black America

Hardly four square miles, Harlem has been on New York’s mind for four centuries


The first tourists found the neighborhood people surprisingly attractive—tall and copper-skinned with shining black hair, but excitable and "stupid as garden poles." The visitors tried to kidnap two of them. The residents thought the outsiders were dumb, too, as well as short, weak, hairy and smelly. Recognizing marks when they saw them, the Indians sold the Dutch the whole island of Mannahatta—which they never thought they owned—for the equivalent of $2,000. Then another band of hustlers sold the same real estate to the newcomers again. It happened a third time, too. And so began the long fraught engagement of Harlem with white folks.

Hardly four square miles, Harlem has been on New York’s mind for four centuries. Nowhere else in America—and rarely in the world—has so much artistic and political energy and so much anguish been so concentrated in so confined a space.

Everyone from Aaron Burr to Malcolm X has lived there, along with Louis Armstrong, James Baldwin, Frank Costello, Father Devine, W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Marcus Garvey, George Gershwin, Alexander Hamilton, Billie Holiday, Harry Houdini, Langston Hughes, Joe Louis, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Arthur Miller, Charlie Parker, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin and Fats Waller.

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New-York Historical Society

Speculators constructed rowhouses in the middle of empty fields along West 133rd Street in the 1880s.


Ever since the 1920s, Harlem has been facile shorthand for black America, but for all their vivid history in the neighborhood, African-Americans were actually latecomers to its tenements, neat brownstone rows and gaudy mansions.

The Dutch still set the tone in the dozy farm village north of the city for a century after the English turned New Amsterdam into New York in 1664. Immigrant Germans, Irish, Italians, Cubans and Puerto Ricans followed. The Jews moved up from the Lower East Side before World War I. (My father, who grew up near Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, used to brag about boyhood errands delivering bakery rolls filled with cocaine to the gangster "Gyp the Blood," aka Harry Horowitz.) When blacks began renting in the blocks from West 133rd Street to West 135th Street in the 1910s, a group of white Harlemites proposed building a 24-foot-high fence, saying they wanted to keep out "the dark plague."

More alchemist’s cauldron than melting pot, Harlem turned outsiders into insiders: The Dutch became Knickerbocker aristocrats; the British became the WASP Establishment; and the Germans integrated so completely that they disappeared as an ethnic group. The Irish, Italians and Jews prospered and moved away. That left the Latinos, who went on to colonize much of northern Manhattan. It was a different story for the blacks. For them, more often than not, Harlem has been The Big Hard.

The whole epic—from that first encounter in 1609 between Henry Hudson and the Lenni Lenape Indians along the river that memorializes him to Columbia University’s thrust into the Manhattanville industrial slum in 2010—is told in "Harlem," Jonathan Gill’s panoramic history. An academic and magazine writer, Mr. Gill blends high-density research, political and cultural sophistication, and narrative drive to produce an epic worthy of its fabled subject.

Black Gotham

By Carla L. Peterson
Yale, 446 pages, $32

Inevitably, the saga of black Harlem is the most compelling element in Mr. Gill’s encyclopedic book. But before he gets to it, he does full justice to the whites—especially the countless scoundrels—who plotted the street grid and literally paved the way.

There is the disgraced, decrepit Aaron Burr in the 1830s, long after murdering the squire of Hamilton Grange. Alexander Hamilton’s famous house, built on what would become 143rd Street, was subsequently moved twice within Harlem. Burr himself lived in luxury with the notorious widow Eliza Jumel, the richest woman in America, in her mansion 10 blocks or so north. There is Boss Tweed, the corrupt Tammany tiger, and his henchmen, who built Harlem castles in the 1870s with the kickbacks and outright thievery that so inflamed the political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Half a century later and to the east, Ciro Terranova, who hailed from—where else?—Corleone, Sicily, teamed up with "Lupo the Wolf" and Ciro’s half-brother, Giuseppe "The Clutch Hand" Morello, to become the founding fathers of the Italian Mafia. Gyp the Blood Horowitz, "Lefty Louie" Rosenberg and the rest of the Kosher Nostra were not far behind.

So Harlem was never paradise for honest citizens, no matter their race. The first black in Harlem was probably Jan Rodriguez, a Portuguese seaman who washed up in 1613. By 1664, 307 slaves were recorded in the area. By the 1830s, downtown whites were selling off their country places, Mr. Gill writes, because of the growing Afro-American presence.


By Jonathan Gill
Grove, 520 pages, $29.95

The pattern was to repeat when Southern blacks poured in after World War I. But even as the Harlem Renaissance unleashed an explosion of creativity that still reverberates in American culture, the lives of ordinary people could be a torment. "Long before the stock market crash, black Harlem had become a community in crisis," writes Mr. Gill, "leading the nation in poverty, crime, overcrowding, unemployment, juvenile delinquency, malnutrition and infant and maternal mortality." In 1925, the homicide rate in central Harlem was almost twice the city’s rate; a decade later it had metastasized to six times the city average.

In this whirl of misery, Harlem politicians—conventional or otherwise—had a habit of winding up in trouble and sometimes behind bars. Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican back-to-Africa promoter who mobilized vast throngs in Harlem, went to federal prison for fraud. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the charismatic clergyman and pol, was nearly run out of Congress on a rail. Four decades later, the man who defeated him for Harlem’s seat, Charles Rangel, was stripped of power by his House colleagues for, among other things, failing to pay his taxes and commandeering four flats in a choice Harlem apartment house.

Harlem Is Nowhere

By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Little, Brown, 296 pages, $24.99

No apologist for radicals, Mr. Gill nonetheless prefers two even more exotic but effective power brokers. One was East Harlem’s Rep. Vito Marcantonio, a Depression-era communist in all but party card, who crusaded for the poor of all colors. The other was Bayard Rustin, the ultimate eminence noir, who was the strategist of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington that galvanized the civil-rights movement and ultimately led to better lives for African-Americans wherever they lived.

With its essential focus on Harlem, the Gill book necessarily scants other chapters of African-American life in the city. Carla L. Peterson, who teaches English at the University of Maryland, fills in one of them with "Black Gotham," her ingenious excavation of the history of her forebears, members of what W.E.B. DuBois would later call the "talented tenth."

Starting from a few scraps unearthed in a file box at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg research center in Harlem and branching out into obscure pharmacists’ archives and other forgotten troves, Ms. Peterson painstakingly reconstructs the lost lives of a black "elite"—her term—who flourished in the 1830s in lower Manhattan and then, after vicious anti-black riots in 1834, across the river in Brooklyn.

Peter Guignon, Ms. Peterson’s great-great-grandfather, and his son-in-law, Philip White, probably never set foot in Harlem. Their early presence in the city, she writes, "overturns the commonly held notion that New York’s black intellectual life started with the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s," most of whose major figures came from elsewhere in the U.S. and from the Caribbean. Her kinfolk and their friends, New Yorkers born and bred, "lived downtown in the midst of the city’s white population. . . . They were not bohemians or rebels; to the contrary, the held values remarkably similar to white middle-class norms."

In the mid-1830s, only one in four African-American children went to school. But some of those who did were offered an education that might make today’s ambitious private-school parents drool. At the Mulberry Street School, the curriculum included spelling, penmanship, grammar, mathematics, geography, astronomy and Bible studies. Some graduates went on to the Canal Street High School, where they were taught Latin, Greek and other classical subjects.

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Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

The original Cotton Club, on Lenox Ave., circa 1932.


These schools and other bedrock institutions, like St. Phillip’s African Episcopal Church, benefited from the philanthropy of rich whites, especially the Lorillard tobacco family and from John Jay II, the grandson of the first Supreme Court chief justice. In time, the black elite established a flourishing world of literary, musical and intellectual organizations for both men and women. For some, these separate but culturally equal groups represented not self-segregation but self-reliance and independence from their bossy white benefactors.

For all their striving, Ms. Peterson’s forebears were subjected to endless humiliations in a racist society. They had to struggle to vote, to be admitted to white professional societies—even to evade "blackbirders" who broke into their homes in pursuit of runaway slaves from the South. And when anti- abolitionist mobs turned on the blacks in the ghastly riot of 1834, the police and their white neighbors stood by while their houses were torched.

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a spiritual descendant of Ms. Peterson’s ancestors. She is a Harvard magna cum laude from Houston and a Fulbright scholar with a curriculum vitae crammed with grants who made "A Journey to the Mecca of Black America," as the subtitle of her impressionistic book, "Harlem Is Nowhere," puts it. The resulting memoir mixed with social anthropology is at once affected and affecting.

Ms. Rhodes-Pitts takes her title from a 1948 essay by Ralph Ellison, who asked a Harlem man-on-the-street how he was doing and was told: "Oh, man, I’m nowhere." She pays homage to Ellison and the other members of the black literary pantheon—Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin—in a long essay that seems recycled from an earlier academic life. Once the lit-crit is out of the way, Ms. Rhodes-Pitts is free to evoke her adopted Harlem in all its thwarted intensity.

Before long, she has introduced a cavalcade of charming oddballs, including L.S. Alexander Gumby (1885-1961), who made it his life’s work to compile "Gumby’s Negro Scrapbook" or "Negroeana," a library-paste-and-loose-leaf-paper compilation of thousands of clippings that he had accumulated, indexed and sub-indexed according to a system only Gumby could fathom. Another lost original is Raven Chanticleer (1928-2002), the creator of Harlem’s first and only wax museum. As Ms. Rhodes-Pitts shows, this tradition continues today. We meet Sister Doris Littlejohn, also known as Pastor Dorcas Lynn, outside the state office building at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. Sister Doris soon produces a yellow legal pad in which she has written letters to powerful people, like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates, about alienation in the community. And then there’s the man the author calls The Messenger, who chalks inspirational admonitions on the sidewalks of Lenox Avenue. "LIFE IS NO JOKE. THINK," reads one. "Try to THINK better so that you can act better," commands another.

By the time we encounter The Chief, an aging survivor of the black chauvinist African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, it’s clear that a subtext of "Harlem Is Nowhere" is that the economic and psychic oppression of Harlem life has driven many of its most gifted citizens around the bend to the wilder shores of prophecy.

"It all comes down to a point that is as simple as it is terrible," she writes. "It is a fact that closes in on itself, like the mythical serpent that devours its own tail: This is our land that we don’t own."

Indeed, the gaudy gentrification of Harlem spurred by the decade-long economic boom begun during the presidency of future Harlem luminary Bill Clinton, rankles Ms. Rhodes-Pitts and others who protest that outsiders are again thriving while the worthy poor suffer on.

Mr. Gill’s "Harlem" provides the numbers behind uptown’s latest rebirth. Between 1994 and 2001, more than $1.2 billion in public and private money was pumped into the area. New condominium towers sprouted, and the value of vintage houses on Strivers’ Row and Sugar Hill soared. Mom-and-pop stores on 125th Street and along the great boulevards gave way to national chains. And the black population in the Mecca of Black America plunged—from 88% in 1990 to 80% in 2000 to 40% in 2010.

The flip-side of the long litany of Harlem despair is the nostalgic burnishing of the Harlem Renaissance. The great efflorescence coincided with the Jazz Age boom that led to the collapse of 1929. New York was as racist as ever and not ashamed of it. Blacks were barred from the iconic Cotton Club, where the chorus girls had to be light-skinned ("tall, tan and terrific") and the great Duke Ellington had to turn out "jungle music" like "Creole Love Call" for them to shimmy to.

Did the very oppressiveness of the times for black writers, musicians and artists somehow concentrate their will and their talent? Or would this extraordinary outpouring of creative energy have been even more remarkable if conditions had been more benign? Certainly Harlem never experienced another cultural revolution to match it.

The next great boom, starting in the 1990s, spawned quite a different aesthetic phenomenon in black New York: the birth of hip-hop. Only two of the early rap stars—Tupac Shakur and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs—were born in Harlem, and Diddy actually grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Run-DMC and the impresario Russell Simmons were Queens kids. Jay-Z came from the sprawling Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto in Brooklyn. The closest hip-hop came to Harlem was when Public Enemy or another of the new big acts played the Apollo.

The Great Panic of 2008 deflated the most recent Harlem real-estate bubble. But some things never change. Just the other day, 80-year-old Charlie Rangel, censured but unfazed, announced that he would run next year for yet another congressional term, his 22nd. With its gentrified new gloss, Rangel’s Harlem is no longer the throbbing heart of black America. It just might be settling into a 21st-century version of its original role as Manhattan’s first suburb.

—Mr. Kosner is the author of "It’s News to Me," a memoir of his career as the editor of Newsweek, New York magazine, Esquire and the New York Daily News.

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The American Novel

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 26, 2011


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Slave Trade

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 26, 2011


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How the Civil War Changed Walt Whitman’s Poetry

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 26, 2011

“Daybreak Gray and Dim”
How the Civil War Changed Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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By Randall Fuller

Image: The unnamed Confederate soldier lying in a trench fell at Petersburg in April 1865
The unnamed Confederate soldier lying in a trench fell at Petersburg in April 1865.
Library of Congress

By the fall of 1861, Whitman had come to believe he needed to dosomething for the war effort. His first act was to contribute a patriotic broadside that appeared simultaneously in the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, the New York Leader, and Harper’s Weekly:

BEAT! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he now
have with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or
gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you
bugles blow.

The poem is rich with hearty imperatives: Sweep away schools, work, even weddings: war is at hand! As with much patriotic verse of the era, Whitman’s poem not only celebrates the drums and bugles of war but attempts to become those drums and bugles—to embody the martial music that would lead an army to victory.

Yet anxiety permeates every line of Whitman’s first significant war poem. Behind the call to abolish daily life is a keen nostalgia for all that will soon be destroyed. The sound of war bursts “like a ruthless force, / Into the solemn church,” but instead of uniting the worshippers, it merely “scatter[s] the congregation.” The sacrifice of the bridegroom, enacted throughout the nation, erodes the most basic unit of social life: “no happiness must he now have with his bride.” Faith and domesticity, Whitman suggested, are the first casualties of the war.

Image: Sergeant with Union infantrymen
Sergeant with Union infantrymen
Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress

The source of this insight and the inspiration for the poem was Bull Run. On July 21, 1861, a month and a half after the disastrous skirmish at Big Bethel, hundreds of curiosity seekers and politicians from Washington had filled their picnic hampers and piled into carriages and veronicas for the twenty-mile ride to Manassas Junction. The day was insufferably hot and dusty, but the scalding Virginia summer did little to alter the atmosphere of general merriment. The crowd of spectators expected nothing less than to witness a heroic battle that would conclude, if God had any say in the matter, with the punctual reunification of the country.

What they saw instead was panic and confusion. Entire companies of men fled, some dazed and bloodstained, some screaming in pain. They ran from the battlefield as fast as they could, stunned by what they had just experienced in nearby fields and woods. The fear was contagious. Hearing hysterical soldiers shriek, “Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped!,” the civilians fled in as hurried and disorganized a fashion as the disgraced Army of the Potomac.

At the time of the First Battle of Bull Run, John Newton Breed was twenty-three years old: a husband, father, and bugler in the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. In his manuscript reminiscence written more than thirty years later, Breed attempted to tell in clear and unemotional language what it felt like to hear bullets slap into the meat of the person beside him, to see bloody pieces of human beings scattered underfoot, and to march toward an enemy entrenched less than a hundred yards away. “As we crossed Bull Run at Sudley Ford,” he recollected, “we saw for the first time the results of real war. It was a new sight probably to everyone in the regiment; the dead and wounded lying where they fell.”

Image: Union artilleryman in Hardee hat
Union artilleryman in Hardee hat
Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress

Made solemn by these scenes, Breed’s battalion continued toward the field of action, where things only got worse. A mile from the Bull Run River, he saw “the killed and wounded . . . lying by the score, and rifle and cannon balls were flying thick and fast.” He asked himself,

whether I should go forward and do my duty, or slink out with the field music. I was frightened, and am not ashamed to own it. I thought it was sure death if I went on. I thought of my wife and helpless child, what a pity it was to leave them to the mercy of the world; while, on the other hand, I could not be a coward, for I was the descendant of revolutionary heroes, therefore I would go where duty called.

Later in the afternoon, something occurred that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

I had gone but twenty or thirty steps when a cannon-ball, passing a few feet from my head, struck a comrade who was walking nine or ten feet from us and severed his head from his body as clean as it could have been done by a guillotine. The headless trunk remained trembling, and still holding his gun in his hand—I stood gazing on the terrible object, unable to move hand or foot—I do not know that I breathed—how long I know not—it seemed hours, but it could not have been but minutes, it may have been but a few seconds—I can remember five other cannon-balls striking the road at my side and in front, and yet I could not stir, until at last the headless trunk swayed and fell, almost to my feet.

Image: African-American Union soldier with musket
African-American Union soldier with musket
Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress

Whitman later called Bull Run a “crucifixion,” a defeat he included in the two days “of all the war . . . I can never forget.” (The other was April 14, 1865, the day of Lincoln’s assassination.) The defeat obsessed him for years, appearing again and again in his writings. Although he had been in Brooklyn at the time and had yet to see the war up close, he wrote about the battle as if he had been there, relying upon newspaper accounts to provide details of the chaotic retreat. “The Saturday and Sunday of the battle (20th, 21st) had been parch’d and hot to an extreme,” he reported,

the dust, the grime and smoke, in layers, sweated in, follow’d by other layers again sweated in, absorb’d by those excited souls—their clothes all saturated with the clay-powder filling the air—stirr’d up everywhere on the dry roads and trodden fields by the regiments, swarming wagons, artillery, &c.—all the men with this coating of murk and sweat and rain, now recoiling back, pouring over the Long Bridge—a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck.

There is something deeply personal about this description. Julia Ward Howe, soon to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had commemorated the first wave of volunteers by comparing them to “new-fledged eaglets” who met “unscared the dazzling front of day.” William Cullen Bryant and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. boasted of the heroic recruits in their own poems, “Our Country’s Call” and “The Wide-Awake Man.” But Whitman’s description of these same men after Bull Run is stripped of patriotic ideology, of cheap glory or contrived heroics. His focus instead is on the fear and humiliation of the soldiers following a crushing defeat—a perspective made possible in part by his emotional identification with the men and their experience.

Image: Burying the Dead on the Battlefield of Antietam, September 1862, by Andrew Gardner
Burying the Dead on the Battlefield of Antietam, September 1862, by Andrew Gardner.
Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

Like John Newton Breed, who had never seen war until he marched into its chaotic maw, Whitman would be changed forever by Bull Run. Never again would he boast so confidently about the future of America. “The dream of humanity, the vaunted Union we thought so strong, so impregnable,” he wrote after the war, recalling the first summer of war, “lo! it seems already smash’d like a china plate.” Implicitly criticizing the poetry of Leaves of Grass, with its confident assertions of national destiny and personal freedom, he asked of the young recruits, “Where are the vaunts, and the proud boasts with which you went forth? Where are your banners, and your bands of music, and your ropes to bring back prisoners? Well, there isn’t a band playing—and there isn’t a flag but clings ashamed and lank to its staff.”

It wasn’t just young men who were wounded in the rout at Bull Run, Whitman asserted; it was the nation. “The fact is,” he reported, that this “hour was one of the three or four of those crises we had then and afterward, during the fluctuations of four years, when human eyes appear’d at least just as likely to see the last breath of the Union as to see it continue.” He described an incident in which one “of our returning colonels express’d in public that night . . . the opinion that it was useless to fight.” No one in “that large crowd of officers and gentlemen” bothered to contradict him.

Image: Union soldier with two women
Union soldier with two women
Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress

The malaise and hand-wringing that inevitably followed Bull Run also prompted the writing of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” In it, Whitman tried to record as honestly as possible the social costs of the war while at the same time conveying the urgency of restoring the Union:

Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie
awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles

Shrill and mildly panicked, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is by no means a great Whitman poem. Yet it manages to express a sentiment that few of his poetic contemporaries were willing to articulate so early in the war: Saving the Union would require the ugly realities of modern warfare. The nation would have to become acquainted with the stench of terror and the sorrows of bloodshed if it were to be reunified, and in the aftermath, celebrating America would become increasingly difficult.

A week or so before Bull Run, Whitman had rather blithely suggested in a chatty note to his brother George, “All of us here think the rebellion as good as broke—no matter if the war does continue some months yet.” In truth, George would spend the next four years in the Union army, marching thousands of miles, camping in swamps, riverbeds, and unprotected fields in the hottest of summer days and coldest of winter nights, subsisting on hardtack and whatever game could be shot, fighting in more than twenty battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, and the Wilderness. Of the original 1,100 enlistees in his regiment, George Whitman was among the less than 20 percent who survived. Referring to this fact, a comrade called him “just the luckiest man in the American army.” Rising from private to major, he was finally captured toward the end of the war and placed in a rebel prison, which he managed, improbably, to survive as well. Always more laconic than his older brother, he would compress all the terror and hardship of those four years into a simple phrase scrawled in a hasty letter to his mother: “it was mighty trying to a fellows nerves, as the balls was flying around pretty thick.”

Image: General Ulysses S. Grant, President Andrew Johnson and Cabinet in Grand Review, 1865.
General Ulysses S. Grant, President Andrew Johnson and Cabinet in Grand Review, 1865. By Mathew Brady
National Archives

Even after the shock of Bull Run, the sequence of events George Whitman would experience seemed impossible to imagine in the fall of 1861. Almost as unlikely was the transformation of Whitman’s poetry. Emerson’s prediction that Leaves of Grass marked the “beginning of a great career” would prove to be correct. The gaudy emerald-green volume of poems first published in 1855 and revised during the next four decades would launch one of the most remarkable careers in American literary history. It would permanently alter what poetry could be, what it could look and sound like, what it could discuss and signify.

Endowing that poetry with meaning, however, was the Civil War. The war made a significant impact on Whitman’s art in Drum-Taps, a collection of poems later absorbed into Leaves of Grass, and in the nonfiction prose of Specimen Days and Memoranda During the War, written a decade or so later. More important, it provided an experience bigger than Whitman, bigger than the nation, bigger than poetry itself. It did so, he observed years later, by revealing to him “some pang of anguish—some tragedy, profounder than ever poet wrote.”

Image: Young Union soldier with bayoneted musket, knife, and revolver.
Young Union soldier with bayoneted musket, knife, and revolver.
Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress

One Year Later

Walt Whitman was standing in a deserted battlefield on Christmas Day 1862, scribbling in a small notebook. Dead horses and mules littered the countryside. Splintered stumps stood where fine, stately oaks and maples had recently grown. The earth, loamy, damp, and smelling of minerals, was churned from artillery.

Standing in the aftermath of battle, Whitman could “hear plainly the music of a good band, at some Brigadier’s headquarters, a mile and a half away.” He continued: “Then the drum tap from one direction or other comes constantly breaking in. . . . I hear the sound of bugle calls, very martial, at this distance.” Something about the music altered his mood, made him both pensive and hopeful. The landscape was suddenly transformed. “Amid all this pleasant scene, under the sweet sky and warm sun, I sit and think over the battle of last Saturday week.”

That battle was Fredericksburg: the Union debacle in which his brother George had been wounded, the battle that would end the year with yet another Northern defeat. Gunfire had been so heavy, according to a Confederate survivor, that “a chicken could not live in that field when we open on it.” Whitman would later describe it as “the most complete piece of mismanagement perhaps ever yet known in the earth’s wars.” To a visitor at the White House, Abraham Lincoln offered this assessment: “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” The president had recently fired the inert and unresponsive George McClellan and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside to lead the Army of the Potomac. That choice proved disastrous. By no means a military strategist, Burnside impetuously led 120,000 troops across the Rappahannock in the hopes of attacking Fredericksburg. General Lee was waiting for him, his troops heavily fortified, entrenched on high ground. Marching into this trap, the Union suffered 13,000 casualties.

Image: Confederate artilleryman
Confederate artilleryman
Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress

In Brooklyn, Whitman had happened across his brother’s misspelled name in the list of casualties printed by the New York newspapers after the battle. He immediately left home, presumably encouraged by his family, and boarded a train to Washington. Somewhere along the way, his pocket was picked, and for the next few days he wandered penniless through the capital’s thirty or so hospitals. He searched without success for George, haunting the teeming wards and makeshift infirmaries that had been set up throughout the city in tents, old taverns, and even the Greek-columned U.S. Patent Office. Finally, he borrowed enough money to take the train to Falmouth, Virginia, closer to the battlefield.

There, he stumbled into the chaos of defeat. The Army of the Potomac had been torn to shreds in its misguided assault upon the entrenched Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights, near Fredericksburg. Now, the wounded lay in makeshift clusters, awaiting treatment. Men leaned against trees and tents, wrapped in blankets, their heads bandaged, their clothes caked with dirt and blood. In this place of misery, Whitman soon found George, whose injury turned out to be slight. The poet left no description of the brief reunion that followed, but promptly wrote to his mother to inform her of the good news. Then, he strolled from camp to camp, asking questions, taking notes. He spoke with men clustered around fires and watched wagonloads of the injured depart for Washington. He stepped inside the hospital tents, where doctors were soaked to the skin in blood. One of the first things he encountered outside the field hospital was a somber row of “[s]everal dead bodies . . . each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket.”

Image: Federal Cavalry at Sudley Springs after the first Battle of Bull Run
Federal Cavalry at Sudley Springs after the first Battle of Bull Run.
Library of Congress

The sight of these bodies, which he hastily recorded in a small, hand-sewn notebook, would become the source for one of his most moving war poems, “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.” The poem opens with its speaker emerging “so early sleepless, / As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near the hospital tent.” The morning stroll is abruptly terminated when the speaker discovers “Three forms . . . untended lying”:

Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first
just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d
hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?

Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

In the early days of the conflict, Whitman had rather blithely announced that the war could not be conveyed by “dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses.” The clash of a mighty nation was too massive, too epic, too freighted with masculine heroics to be entrusted to just any “pale poetling seated at a desk lisping cadenzas piano.”

The war, he wrote, awaited “a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing, carrying a rifle on [his] shoulder,” to sing its bold meanings. Early in the war, he had aspired, however vicariously, to be that “strong man.” After “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” he would no longer hope for that. The poem is light-years ahead of the simplistic boosterism of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and it is different in tone and intention from the earlier poetry of Leaves of Grass.Gone are the expansive catalogs, the imperious persona, the unbounded optimism, and the overbearing insistence on union and harmony. The speaker of “A Sight in Camp” is more concerned with the human toll of a disastrous battle. When its narrator lifts “with light fingers” the coarse blankets draping the dead, he has no idea who or what he will find. No longer can he assume that the reality of his situation will coincide with his wishes. Only after studying the “gaunt and grim” face of a stranger does the speaker recognize the common humanity shared by dead and living alike. “Who are you, my dear comrade?”

Stepping away from the row of the dead, Whitman encountered something even more disturbing: a pile of refuse stacked as high as his shoulders. The tang of blood was in the air, mixed with wood smoke and gunpowder, and upon closer inspection the pile of offal turned out to be “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening.” There was, he wrote, “a full load for a one-horse cart.”

For weeks and months to come, the image returned to him, unbidden, in vivid flashes, horrible. His description of the heap of severed limbs appeared in letters home, in notebooks, and eventually in the memoirs he published after the war. It changed his entire perspective, reoriented his vision. The poet who had sung hymns to the wholeness of the human form, who had praised “the body electric,” would soon turn his attention to the disfigured and maimed, to men who lay in the hospitals with arms and legs missing, bodies resembling meat, men who lay inert beneath the coarse woolen blankets, quietly suffering, the dying and the dead.

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Another Great Free Program for Teaching Maths | Gizmo's Freeware

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 26, 2011


Sent via http://www.addtoany.com

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Read Before You Honor The Father of Our Country…

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 26, 2011


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Growing Up Indian

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 26, 2011


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Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 26, 2011


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23 February

Posted by jcmaziquemd on February 23, 2011

W. E. B. Du Bois was born on this day in 1868. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a cornerstone document in African-American history, Du Bois takes issue with those contemporaries who advocated a patient approach to racial equality. Prominent in this group was Booker T. Washington, who believed that “it is the duty of the Negro … to deport himself modestly in regard of political claims, depending upon the slow but sure influences that proceed from the possessions of property, intelligence, and high character for the full recognition of his political rights.” To advance his slow-change approach, Washington wanted young African-Americans to learn a useful trade; the highly educated Du Bois bristled at the idea of setting such limits, either from within or without. He also demanded answers to some tough questions:

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song — soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. …Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation, — we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

Biographer David Levering Lewis writes that Du Bois “attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism—scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity." This list omits fiction, unless Dark Princess, Du Bois’s 1928 romantic novel, is placed in Lewis’s “propaganda” category. Most contemporary reviewers noted the book’s “old white-hot indignation against racial oppression,” while noting the “flamboyant and unconvincing” plot. This turns upon the protagonist’s involvement in “a widespread and carefully planned uprising of American blacks,” beginning with the derailment of a trainload of KKK delegates.

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