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Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, January 17, 1863

Whitman, Walt. "Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, January 17, 1863." Walt Whitman: The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. New York: New York University Press, 1961. 68-70.
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Whitman writes to Ralph Waldo Emerson to update him on his current affairs. He is still getting settled in Washington, and has found himself frequenting the local hospitals, which are full of sick, injured, and dying young men from the war. In these men, Whitman has seen an exemplary expression of American character, and intends to write a book about it.

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To Ralph Waldo Emerson
[1.17. 1863]
ENDORSED: “Jan 17 ’63 | to Emerson—was | it sent? | I think not.” DRAFT LETTER.

Your letters from Buffalo have just come to hand. They find me still hanging around here—my plans, wants, ideas, &c gradually getting into shape.
I go a great deal into the Hospitals. Washington is full of them—both in town and out around the outskirts. Some of the larger ones are towns in themselves. In small and large, all forty to fifty thousand inmates are ministered to, as I hear. Being sent for by a particular soldier, three weeks since, in the Campbell Hospital, I soon fell to going there and elsewhere to like places daily. The first shudder has long passed over, and I must say I find deep things, unreckoned by current print or speech. The Hospital, I do not find it, the repulsive place of sores or fevers, nor the place of querulousness, nor the bad results of morbid years which one avoids like bad s[mells]—at least [not] so is it under circumstances here—other hospitals may be, but not here.
I desire and intend to write a little book out of this phase of America, her masculine young manhood, its conduct under most trying of and highest of all exigency, which she, as by lifting a corner in a curtain, has vouchsafed me to see America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited, sepulcher of Washington itself—( this union Capital without the first bit of cohesion—this collect of proofs how low and swift a good stock can deteriorate— ) Capital to which these deputies most strange arrive from every quarter, concentrating here, well-drest, rotten, meager, nimble and impotent, full of gab, full always of their thrice-accursed party—arrive and skip into the seats of mightiest legislation, and take seats of judges and high executive seats—while by quaint Providence come also sailed and wagoned hither this other freight of helpless worn and wounded youth, genuine of the soil, of darlings and true heirs to me the first unquestioned and convincing western crop, prophetic of the future, proofs undeniable to all men’s ken of perfect beauty, tenderness and pluck that never race rivalled.
But more, a new world here I find as I would show—a world full of its separate action, play, suggestiveness—surely a medium world, advanced between our well-known practised one of body and of mind, and one there may-be somewhere on beyond, we dream of, of the soul.
Not to fly off to these clouds, however, I must abruptly say to my friends, where interested, that I find the best expression of American character I have ever seen or conceived—practically here in these ranks of sick and dying young men—nearly all I have seen, (five-sixths I think of those I have seen,) farmers’ sons from the West, northwest—and from Pennsylvania, New York, and from largely among the rest your Massachusetts, &c—now after great and terrible experiences, here in their barracks they lie—in those boarded Washington hospital barracks, whitewashed outside and in, one story, high enough, airy and clean enough—one of the Wards, for sample, a long stretch, a hundred and sixty feet long, with aisle down the middle, with cots, fifty or more on each side—and Death there up and down the aisle, tapping lightly by night or day here and there some poor young man, with relieving touch—that is one Ward, a cluster of ten or twelve make a current Washington Hospital—wherein this moment lie languishing, burning with fever or down with diarrhea, the imperial blood and rarest marrow of the North—here, at any rate, as I go for a couple of hours daily, and get to be welcome and useful, I find the masses fully justified by closest contact, never vulgar, even calm, without greediness, no flummery, no frivolity—responding electric and without fail to affection, yet no whining—not the first unmanly whimper have I yet seen or heard.
In the Patent Office Hospital, Dr. Stone, (Horatio Stone the sculptor—in his ward, some 150 men—he has been surgeon here several months—has had successive changes of soldiers in charge—some bad wounds, of course—amputations, sometimes rapidly followed by death, &c.—others from fevers, &c. &c.)—he told me last evening that he had not in memory one single case of a man’s meeting the approach of death, whether sudden or slow, with fear or trembling—but always of these young men meeting their death with steady composure, and often with curious readiness—
The Army (I noticed it first in camp, and the same here among the wounded) is very young—and far more American than we supposed—ages range mainly from 20 to 30—a slight sprinkling of men older—and a bigger sprinkling of young lads of 17 and 18—
As I took temporary memoranda of names, items, &c of one thing and another, commissioned to get or do for the men—what they wished and what their cases required from outside, &c—these memoranda grow bulky, and suggest something to me—so I now make fuller notes, or a sort of journal, (not a mere dry journal though, I hope)—This thing I will record—it belongs to the time, and to all the States—(and perhaps it belongs to me)—

People who Created this Work

Whitman, Walt author

People Mentioned in this Work

Emerson, Ralph [pages:68-70]

The letter is addressed to Emerson.