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The echoes of Walt Whitman’s ‘Drum-Taps’

In October 1865, a 22-year-old wordsmith living on Ashburton Place, behind the Massachusetts State House, filed what has to be one of the nastiest book reviews ever published. The volume before him was “an insult to art,” a brash and haughty Henry James told readers of The Nation, a then-months-old New York weekly. Written in free verse, each line beginning “in resolute independence of its companions, without a visible goal,” the book demonstrated, according to James, “the efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”

The poet himself James found downright distasteful. “Mr. Whitman,” he harrumphed, “is very fond of blowing his own trumpet.”

Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps,” a collection of Civil War-themed poems, was first published 150 years ago this month, just a few weeks after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of Whitman’s idol, President Abraham Lincoln. With scenes from the army camps, paeans to Manhattan and the American flag, and stories of wartime America from a variety of perspectives, it traced the whole arc of a war with which Whitman had been intimately involved. But the poet’s ambitions were grander still — Whitman evoked a vision of the country he thought the newly reunited states should aspire to become.

Because Whitman published “Drum-Taps” — on his own dime — so quickly after the war, he had not had an opportunity to reckon in the work with the conflict’s dramatic ending. Six months later, he republished the book with a “sequel,” a cycle of poems reflecting on the war’s end, including the elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d.” It was the expanded version that James so savagely reviewed.

New York Review Books earlier this month reissued “Drum-Taps” in its entirety (with the sequel) for the first time since 1865. Elegantly edited by Lawrence Kramer, a professor of English at Fordham University who has set many of Whitman’s poems to music, the new pocket-size paperback will go a long way toward proving that young James was — as he later admitted — just plain wrong. Woefully and even hilariously wrong. ...

Read entire article at Boston Globe