Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Walt Whitman documentary includes focus on modern disabled soldiers

Wounded Civil War soldiers, 1865.

In an interesting inclusion, the PBS "American Experience" documentary on poet Walt Whitman last week tied his story to modern New York City and current disabled soldiers.

As the film discussed how Whitman came to write Leaves of Grass, it focused on the diverse people in NY City who inspired Whitman and how that diversity continues to enrich the city today.

During the Civil War, Whitman goes to Washington, D.C., after his brother, George, who was one of the first to enlist in the Union Army, is hurt, and decides he can help the war effort by ministering to wounded soldiers.

"Whitman began making the rounds of the hospitals offering modest gifts of fruit, candy, books, pencils and paper to the hospitalized soldiers. More importantly, he lent an ear to the young men who needed a friend," according to the documentary. "Through his ministrations of wounded soldiers, he found purpose and a new inspiration for his art."

The documentary intermingled pictures of Civil War wounded soldiers with modern-day soldiers dealing with amputations and other serious war wounds. It was an appropriate touch, given the growing numbers of disabled veterans, to tie history and modernity together in this riveting documentary that truly celebrated Walt Whitman. Here's a poem Whitman wrote after his time with the soldiers:

"The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night — some are so young;
Some suffer so much — I recall the experience sweet and sad;
(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)"
— Walt Whitman, "The Dresser" (1867, later titled "The Wound-Dresser")