Poetry News

Natasha Trethewey (SRO) on Whitman and the Civil War

By Harriet Staff

The Washington Post reports on PLOTUS Natasha Trethewey's recent lecture at the Library of Congress, in which she argued that "One hundred and fifty years later, Americans are still fighting the Civil War... The field of battle is now historical memory, and gatling guns have been replaced by symbols, but the contest over what sort of nation this will be — and was — continues..." Three hundred people gathered to hear Trethewey speak about Walt Whitman's treatment and omission of African American Civil War soldiers in Leaves of Grass. The article goes on to report:

The war poems in Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” are justly hailed as “monuments to the common solider,” Trethewey said, but she noted that his verse also reflects the racial attitudes of his time. “Whitman leaves out the reality of the faces of so many soldiers who were not white,” she said, “even as his inclusive language reminds us of the freed men all over the South.”

While acknowledging his radical liberalism, Trethewey insisted that Whitman perpetuated the national mythology that “blacks were passive recipients of freedom” given to them by brave white soldiers. In fact, many blacks fought and sacrificed their lives in the Civil War.

When she toured historic sites in her native Mississippi, where “the dead stand up in stone,” she found the same act of erasure still being carried out by memorials, plaques and even tour guides working for the Park Service. The record is “rife with omission and embellishment” that keeps “blacks relegated to the margins of historical memory,” she said. The Daughters of the Confederacy worked diligently to make sure that Americans remember the Civil War “only in terms of states’ rights, not in terms of slavery.”

Make the jump for the full article.

Originally Published: January 31st, 2013