Welcome to the Civil War issue of Mickle Street Review, timed to coincide with the sesquicentennial of Walt Whitman’s book, Drum-Taps (first published in 1865 and reissued with a sequel later that year and dated “1855-56”) and Herman Melville’s book of war verse, Battle Pieces (1866).
Neither Drum-Taps nor Battle Pieces was embraced when it first appeared. Critics complained about just how dissonant the poems sounded, how poorly the poems seemed to perform. Whitman’s Civil War poetry soon outran those early negative reviews (by the likes of Henry James), but it took Melville’s poems much longer (within perhaps the last twenty or so years) to be regarded as significant representations of the war and its politics.
Both men were on the Union side and both had access to the war not as soldiers but in more oblique ways. Whitman visited a battlefield in search of his wounded brother, George, and served as a nurse in Army hospitals in Washington, DC; Melville read about the fighting in magazines and newspapers and also traveled to battlefields.
In the essays included in this issue (some of which are primarily about Melville, some mostly about Whitman, and some equally about both), writers take up the Civil War poetry of these two major American authors, and work to see that poetry in cultural context and as the canny rhetorical performances that they are.
The other sections of this issue seek to highlight the ways in which the Civil War Whitman and the Civil War Melville (perhaps more so the Civil War Whitman) have figured in a range of media over the past 150 years. On stage, on the page(s of fiction), on film, in music and in the visual arts, Whitman and Melville’s Civil War poetry has provided a rich textual ground. Their war art has been variously redeployed, interpreted, and reimagined to speak to other times and places, including other wars across the twentieth century.
In addition, the historical war-time figure of Whitman in particular has served as a subject for future poets (those so-called “poets to come”) who meditate on his care of wounded soldiers during the war and the profound influence of the war and its lessons on Whitman, who claimed in 1871 that “my Book [Leaves of Grass] and the War are one.”
— Tyler Hoffman, Editor