Book Review: Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps, The Complete 1865 Edition

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Whitman, Walt. Drum-Taps: The Complete 1865 Edition. Lawrence Kramer, ed. New York: New York Review Books, 2015.

Walt Whitman’s poetry has withstood the test of time, primarily the poems contained in his work Leaves of Grass, a compilation of his poetry that evolved over two decades before its final form in the early 1880s.  Within that collection are many of Whitman’s famous Civil War poems, pieces that speak of everything from the nationalism of the Union’s cause to the gritty and gruesome death experienced on the battlefield.  Whitman’s poetry from the period is unique because of his work with the Union army and wounded soldiers during the war; he wrote poignantly about the experience of the war from a personal level, speaking of death, despair, and the experience of soldiering, and in a poetic style that diverges from some of his other poetry.

Many readers will know a few of these poems (“Oh Captain! My Captain,” “When Lilacs Last in the dooryard bloom’d,” or “Come up from the fields, father” to name a few), but many do not know that Whitman published a book of only his Civil War poetry in 1865, entitled Drum-Taps. This volume, published by Whitman at his own cost, was the poet’s interpretation of the war, responding to battlefield, homefront, and national politics through prose that ranged from a few lines to several pages.   Many of the poems in Drum-Taps are written in a different style than the full version of Leaves; Whitman was a poet that remained visible in his poetry, yet in his Civil War poems he often spoke through the voices of others.

In its original form, Drum-Taps “is a coherent but problematical interpretation of the Civil War; it is a record of the emotional as well as the political word in which the war was fought…” (xiii).  Editor Lawrence Kramer also states that Whitman’s work was the origin of modern war poetry, diverging from the celebratory and epic war-poetry of the past and offering a more realistic view of warfare.  Yet, very soon after the volume was published, Whitman broke up the collection and included a selection of the poems within Leaves of Grass.  Because of this the original Drum-Taps has largely been lost as a stand-alone volume.

This new volume, published at the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the original publication of Drum-Taps, seeks to restore the original Civil War volume for readers.  By reconstructing the original work, editor Lawrence Kramer, intends to recapture the original voice and intention of Whitman’s poetry.  With an excellent introduction and annotations within the poems, this new edition is an excellent resource for those interested in poetry, American literature, or the Civil War.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.