In this compelling, accessible examination of one of America's greatest cultural and literary figures, Robert Leigh Davis details the literary and social significance of Walt Whitman's career as a nurse during the American Civil War. Davis shows how the concept of "convalescence" in nineteenth-century medicine and philosophy—along with Whitman's personal war experiences—provide a crucial point of convergence for Whitman's work as a gay and democratic writer.
In his analysis of Whitman's writings during this period—Drum-Taps, Democratic Vistas, Memoranda During the War, along with journalistic works and correspondence—Davis argues against the standard interpretation that Whitman's earliest work was his best. He finds instead that Whitman's hospital writings are his most persuasive account of the democratic experience. Deeply moved by the courage and dignity of common soldiers, Whitman came to identify the Civil War hospitals with the very essence of American democratic life, and his writing during this period includes some of his most urgent reflections on suffering, sympathy, violence, and love. Davis concludes this study with an essay on the contemporary medical writer Richard Selzer, who develops the implications of Whitman's ideas into a new theory of medical narrative.
"Not only does Davis encourage us to re-value work that used to be dismissed as minor . . . he also places Whitman at a peculiar nexus of diverse groups, and diverse cultural practices, that turn out to be surprisingly exemplary of American (and democratic) concerns."—Tenney Nathanson, University of Arizona
"This is a powerful and innovative study of Whitman's Civil War hospital writings. It offers the best reading so far of these challenging texts. . . . Davis makes one of the most persuasive and fascinating cases I've seen for the much-contested relationship between artistic representation and political representation."—Ed Folsom, author of Walt Whitman's Native Representations