His Health Destroyed, Whitman Assesses What He Got from His Hospital Work, and the Cost
July 4, 2014. During the summer of 1864, Walt Whitman finally took a rest from his work in the military hospitals in Washington, DC. “After five months of visiting the hospitals, Whitman began to complain of ‘quite an attack of sore throat & distress in my head.’ Friends warned him that ‘I hover too much over the beds of the hospitals, with fever & putrid wounds, etc.’ His head ached; his joints throbbed; there was a humming in his ears. One day, he cut his hand and immediately bandaged the appendage with elaborate care, fearful he might contract hospital gangrene.
“After a year, he was no longer the robust man who had once impressed friends and strangers with his animal health. He had perceptibly aged. Doctors examined him and diagnosed ‘hospital malaria,’ ‘hospital fever,’ or ‘hospital poison.’ They ordered him to quit the hospitals. In the summer of 1864, Whitman finally acquiesced and boarded a train to Brooklyn, where he recuperated for six months under his mother’s care before returning to Washington. In the interval, his hair turned completely white. He kept the pallor of the wounded, the fever-bright eyes.
“‘. . . What did I get?’ [Whitman] asked rhetorically, many years after his time in the hospitals. ‘Well — I got the [soldier] boys, for one thing: the boys: thousands of them: they were, they are, they will be mine. . . . then I got Leaves of Grass: but for this I would never have had Leaves of Grass — the consummated book (the last confirming word). . . . You look on me now with the ravages of that experience finally reducing me to a powder. Still I say: I only gave myself: I got the boys, I got the Leaves of Grass. My body? Yes — it had to be given — it had to be sacrificed: who knows better than I do what that means?'”
Randall Fuller, From Battlefields Rising, How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, pp. 155-156; quoting Horace Traubel, Walt Whitman in Camden (1961), 3:582.
– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter A. Gilbert