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This article is taken from PN Review 176, Volume 33 Number 6, July - August 2007.

Whitman's Moment Alexander Nemerov

Dying soldiers, the dead Lincoln, even just the ordinary moments of daily life during the war - moments that each pass, that each die, gone before we know it: Whitman wanted to commemorate all of these. Commemoration, however, presented a problem. It meant turning life to stone, to ice, to crystal. No action that 'swaggers on the eye', no life however rich and full of blood but that it must be made into the coldness of tribute. All those Civil War monuments - monuments planned even as the war went on - froze the fallen hero in a pose of stalwart immobility that repeated the stillness of his death. Whitman wrote in his Memoranda During the War, of 1876, that already the war's events 'have lost their direct personal impression, and the living heat and excitement of their own time, and are being marshall'd for casting, or getting ready to be cast, into the cold and bloodless electrotype plates of history'. History on the page, history as sculpture: they amount to the same thing; the printed page is itself a sculpture, a low relief, solemn inscriptions set in stone. 'What visible, material monument can ever fittingly commemorate the spot?' Whitman asks, but he proceeds with his own monument - the poems of Drum-Taps and the diary entries of Memoranda - and that's what I want to talk about: how he invests each dying moment with a ...


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