Review by Craig A. Warren, Assistant Professor of English & Professional Writing, School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Penn State Erie.
When I first received a review copy of the novel Two Brothers by David H. Jones, the subtitle gave me pause: One North, One South. Innumerable fictions and filmscripts about the Civil War have offered up the same equation: two brothers fighting on opposite sides, each convinced of the righteousness of his cause. Did we really need another novel to feature siblings-at-odds as a metaphor for America’s great fratricidal struggle? What persuaded me to give the book a chance was the fact that Jones had incorporated into his narrative the figure of Walt Whitman, America’s greatest poet. Whitman served as a nurse during the war, and in Two Brothers he functions as a caretaker of the wounded Prentiss brothers – men hospitalized in the wake of the fighting. I wondered how Jones would portray Whitman: an innovative artist who resisted clichés and shattered literary conventions. More specifically, I wanted to see how Jones would use Whitman within a framework designed to appeal to readers expecting the standard brother vs. brother interpretation of the war.
I have a longstanding interest in Walt Whitman, particularly his commentary on the men who fought the war. In Memoranda During the War (1875), Whitman reflected on the centrality of soldiers to his own understanding of the struggle: “[These] two or three millions of American young and middle-aged men, North and South, embodied in the armies . . . were of more significance even than the Political interests involved.” Yet if Whitman knew these men firsthand, he knew that many Americans did not: at least not as he did – men broken and bleeding and dying on cots in hospital wards. The poet fully expected that those less familiar with the troops would not view them as “the main interest of the War.”
Yet the public has indeed shared Whitman’s fascination with the men clothed in blue and gray. The Civil War soldier, by virtue of his flesh and blood humanity, has appealed to generations of Americans as the most compelling and accessible aspect of the crisis. Even when fiction writers have examined the principles at stake in the war, both sacred and mundane, they have usually done so in terms of the words and actions of men in uniform. Jones demonstrates this tendency in Two Brothers. Even when he portrays civilians at some distance from the fighting front, the reader cannot forget the soldiers themselves – the men whose lives and actions define the war.
As it turns out, Jones’s Whitman is not the poet I hoped to see. Certainly I sympathize with any 21st-century author who attempts to recreate Whitman’s tone and diction – especially if the novelist wishes to capture Whitman’s vision of his nation and world. The best attempts are usually in the comic mode, where fiction writers can be suitably grandiose in their estimations of Whitman’s speech. The best effort I know of is the Whitman parody, Wade Wordmore, as found in the 1995 story “Ancestors” by Fred Chappell. There the Whitman stand-in proclaims:
”I am Wade Wordmore, American, untrammeled by boundaries, unfixed as to station, and at my ease in all climes and latitudes, answer to no laws save those of my perfect nature (for I know I am perfect, how can a man tall and in pure health not be perfect?), and am powerful to overstep any border. ”
By contrast, Jones’s version of Whitman is often reduced to making dry statements that flesh out the historical background. Consider this example:
“I am not qualified to expound on military matters, but I know people who would agree that Meade’s pursuit of Lee was dilatory at best,” Whitman responded. (201)
Soon thereafter, Whitman is used to describe the decline of Southern fortunes: “Misery tightened its grip on the South after receiving the sad tidings [about Gettysburg]. Gone forever were the glorious times when Southern arms appeared to be invincible – when victory after victory was achieved on the battlefield” (202). Couldn’t the nation’s most important poet here be used to comment on something beyond the basic tenets of the Lost Cause?
Although disappointed by the portrait of Whitman, I did find other qualities of Two Brothers appealing. The now-stilted language of the nineteenth century is reproduced in the novel with care; to his credit, Jones does not follow Michael Shaara in updating the verbiage of the war’s participants. Nor does Jones condescend to the past when describing the beliefs and motivations of his characters, no matter how outdated or wrongheaded those beliefs may seem to modern readers. In these respects, the novel adheres to historical fact – even if it does sometimes shade into Southern apologia. I can recommend David H. Jones’s Two Brothers to readers new to Civil War fiction and to those for whom the story of the war – no matter how familiar – bears repeating. Both groups will find profit in the book, less for its portrait of Whitman than for its attention to what the poet-nurse treasured above all else: the humanity that both shaped and cursed America’s most costly war.