In going through this week’s reading, it occurred to me that there is another “multitude” of Whitman’s that we have only briefly touched on that is quite worth discussing – Whitman as a father figure. Particularly throughout the Calder essay, where the tender Whitman we’ve spoken of seems at his best, Whitman’s envy and revere of mothers and shame of the lack of responsibility in fathers show a side of Whitman that seems under-addressed, particularly with his interactions with soldiers during the war. These thoughts and position carry over into Whitman’s relationships with the boys he writes of in Drum-Taps and his ability to look at them as a father might, makes him an ideal candidate to care for them.
In Calder’s essay, she explains that though Whitman did not think marriage was in the cards for his life and though he did not envy husbands their wives, he did envy their ability to have children. She even quotes Whitman as saying to a little girl that he wished he knew her when she chirps, “I know you.” This image of Whitman as an affectionate father is much more appealing to me than Whitman “the stalker” or Whitman “the creeper” as our class has so affectionately named him. His desire (though he is seemingly unable) to have children, mobilizes him into “adopting” the soldiers as his own sons. His conversation with the little girl is reminiscent of “The Wound-Dresser” when he writes, “One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you, / Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you” (444).
Throughout Drum-Taps, Whitman also refers to the soldiers as “sons” or “boys” as a father might to his child; he also does this in his letters to Peter Doyle, despite the two’s obvious intimate relationship. Though this may be viewed as merely an age difference marker, the tenderness in which he refers to the soldiers suggests more of a relationship between him and them. It is almost as if Whitman, having no children of his own, asserts himself as the father of the American people, thus adding to his lengthy list of titles. As Calder points out, Whitman often called “the institution of father a failure” (198) and posited this as the reason many boys were driven to enlist. This is yet another area in which Whitman’s desire to mend America’s mistakes manifests itself though Whitman offering himself as a means by which to fix the problem – an honorable pursuit, I think.
Drum-Taps has ironically given me a better picture of Whitman, the man. When he stops talking about being the savior of the nation, it seems he is better at actually being it. Despite his more romantic relationships, it is more rewarding to view Whitman as a father rather than a lusty old man taking advantage of invalid soldiers. Viewing him this way allows Whitman to be seen as a man who truly wanted to rekindle and reunite the nation through tender affection and love, the kind of unconditional love a parent would give a child.