For a moment, I’ll deviate from my usual rhetoric and say, “Thank you,” to all of the men and women serving our country. It may sound self-serving, but after 18 years of military service (17 of them on Active Duty), and having traveled the world a few times over, I can honestly say that I appreciate what our armed forces provide: Freedom, and the rights of the individual. Remember, especially on this day, that everything we have has been fought for; nothing given.
Today I want you to be thankful for the right to be yourself if you have the will to do so. Be thankful for a government for the people, by the people, that allows individuals the opportunity to achieve anything we set our minds to – just as long as we don’t infringe upon the individual rights of another.
As Americans, we have no royalty to bow to, no cast system or set roles. What we have is the American Dream. As the British comedian Eddie Izzard once said, “The American Dream is to be born in the gutter, then get all the money in the world and stick it in your ears.” I think that’s a fair assessment since we all seem to share a collective chip on our shoulders.
And so I’ll take a few minutes to talk about one of my literary heroes, a patriot in his own right, and the father of war correspondents: Walt Whitman.
“Beat! Beat! Drums! Blow! Bugles! Blow! Make no parley, stop for no expostulation, mind not the timid, mind not the weeper or prayer…”
In 1861, rebellious States of the South attempted to secede from the United States, prompting the American Civil War. Whitman, fueled by love of his country, began a theme of patriotism and valor in his work, beginning with the war anthem Beat! Beat! Drums!
Though Whitman did not join the military ranks, he was no stranger to bravery and war. In his poem Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night, about a fallen soldier, he expresses the heartache and horror of war, saying, “Vigil strange I kept on the field one night; when you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day, one look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget.”
On 15 April 1865, President Abraham Lincoln, his greatest single muse, was shot and killed by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. A poetic elegy called Hush’d Be the Camps To-day, was written 19 days later in President Lincoln’s honor.
Hush’d Be the Camps To-day was the collective rendering of honors by all Union soldiers upon the assassination of President Lincoln. In the first stanza, the commander in the poem says, “…Soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons, and each with musing soul retire to celebrate, our commander’s death.”
In the third stanza, the commander in the poem says to, what I assume is Whitman himself, “But sing poet in our name, sing of the love we bore him – because you, dweller in camps, know it truly.”
Why would a commander in an Army Camp be speaking to Walt Whitman in such a way? As mentioned before, Walt Whitman was not a soldier, but was what was called a “camp dweller,” in that he was a civilian embedded in the Army camps of the Civil War, much like you’d see CNN doing today. At one point, over some confusion concerning a list of wounded soldiers, Whitman thought his brother, an Army officer, George Washington Whitman, had been injured and traveled Southward, going military camp to military camp looking for his brother.
He knew that the military is steeped in tradition and ritual, and saying farewell to our fallen comrades in arms is amongst the most time-honored of traditions (we play Taps not only at funerals, but also nightly overseas at 10:00 pm to remind us of them). In the poem, the commander announces Lincoln’s death to the troops, and asks the “dweller” to tell the newspaper he works for, and by extension the world, of the love and respect the soldiers had for President Lincoln.
But, as Whitman says in his poem O Captain! My Captain!, “But I with mournful tread, walk the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead.” Life must, and will, go on.
His style is free-flowing and uninhibited by the drudgery of the classic rules of literature; extremely visceral. He was an American who was not afraid to say what was on his mind. If he felt it, he wrote it; not for publicists or money, but because it was in his nature. He was a wordsmith who stayed true to himself, and for that he is great.
Happy 4th of July.