Today we offer a brief excerpt from Dennis McFarland’s Nostalgia, a novel of the Civil War which features among its characters Walt Whitman, who regularly visits and comforts the wounded in the Washington military hospital that is the setting of the scene below. Summerfield Hayes, a nineteen-year-old private in the Union army, has been rendered mute and unable to write or identify himself in the wake of the horrors he has seen in the Battle of the Wilderness, where he was abandoned by his unit after an exploding shell temporarily deafened him; he is suffering from what we now call PTSD, a condition then little understood, and referred to as “nostalgia.” As we learn here, the silent Hayes is a favorite of the visiting poet, though neither knows the identity of the other, and Hayes is at risk of being considered a malingerer, or worse, a deserter. The poetry of Whitman enters McFarland’s novel in significant ways – not just his actual poetry, but the deeper poetic intuition Whitman brings to bear on his work with the wounded soldiers and his capacious understanding of life itself.
He takes off the saggy-brimmed hat and wearily lifts the strap to his haversack over his head. Struck again by the man’s blending of youth and old age, Hayes believes Walt looks more played-out than he has yet seen him. Walt smiles, crinkling his eyes, then reaches forward and pats Hayes’s head as if he were a puppy. “ ‘Some feelings are to mortals given,’ ” he says, in an altered voice, “ ‘with less of earth in them than heaven.’ ”
“That’s the idea,” says Dr. Bliss, moving around to the other side of the bed and leaning in close to Hayes. “Recite us some poetry, Walt. Cheer us up.”
“ ‘And if there be a human tear,’ ” Walt continues, “ ‘From passion’s dross refined and clear …’ ”
“May I see inside your mouth?” says Dr. Bliss, and Hayes opens his mouth. “Stick out your tongue, please,” says the doctor. “Turn a bit toward the light.”
“ ‘A tear so limpid and so meek,’ ” continues Walt, “ ‘It would not stain an angel’s cheek — ’ ”
Apparently satisfied with the looks of Hayes’s throat, the surgeon takes out a pocket watch, places his fingers on Hayes’s wrist, and times his pulse. Mortified, Hayes cannot make his hand stop quivering. Still touching Hayes’s wrist, the doctor says, “Try to ease yourself, son. You’ve nothing to fear from us.”
When the examination is finished and Dr. Bliss returns to the end of the bed, Walt looks at Hayes sadly and says, “ ‘’Tis that which pious fathers shed / Upon a duteous soldier’s head.’ ”
“Shakespeare?” says Dr. Bliss.
“Walter Scott,” answers Walt, “though I’ve bent him some to the occasion.”
“Ah, here’s one of our invited guests now,” says the surgeon, as Dr. Drum arrives and stands next to him at the footrail.
Clean shaven and balding (the line of his steel-gray hair starting somewhere near the crown), Dr. Drum rises not quite to Dr. Bliss’s shoulder.
“This gentleman,” says Dr. Bliss to Hayes, “is Dr. Drum. I don’t believe you’ve been properly introduced.”
Hayes nods, but Drum only gazes at him blankly.
“I understand you administered ether to this young soldier today,” says Dr. Bliss.
Drum, who appears cheerfully prepared for the interview, blinks his eyes and picks at a loose thread on the cuff of his black suit coat. “That is true,” he says, aloof. “As requested to by your own Captain Gracie.”
“Our own Captain Gracie?” says Dr. Bliss. “And why would a contract surgeon perform a procedure at the behest of a line officer? Is that how you do things in Philadelphia?”
Drum lifts his chin and smiles at Hayes with a kind of patronizing cordiality, as if Hayes were the source of a frivolous complaint. “Oh, I don’t think we’ve done him any harm,” he says.
“I didn’t say you had,” says Dr. Bliss. “Though I doubt you’ve done him any good. He’s already wasting from lack of appetite.”
“I secured the ward surgeon’s authorization,” says Drum. “And I believe we’ve gained some useful intelligence besides.”
Dr. Bliss starts to answer, but utters only the word intelligence, when, at that moment, Dr. Dinkle and the angry captain arrive at the footrail. Walt takes Hayes’s hand and gives him a reassuring wink as Dr. Bliss makes the necessary greetings and thanks the others for joining him. Then each of the men at the end of the bed turns his attention to Hayes in an auxiliary way, as if Hayes were a fire around which they’ve gathered to chat. Most disconcerting to Hayes, the light from the nearby window keeps coming and going — likely the effect of passing afternoon clouds — and the scene is bright one moment and dim the next. As he studies the men’s faces, he believes he reads contrition in Dr. Dinkle’s but clear defiance in the angry captain’s.
“Here’s the situation as I understand it,” says Dr. Bliss. “Captain Gracie requested ether be administered to this patient, and Dr. Drum did so with the permission of Dr. Dinkle. But what I most fail to grasp is why the captain would make such an unusual request.”
Obviously Dr. Bliss means to draw a response from the captain, but before the captain can speak, Drum says, “It’s not a conspiracy, Major Bliss. The captain and I fell into conversation, over the course of which I told him something of my work at the Christian Street Hospital. I happened to mention that we’d developed a good test for malingerers, and he told me he knew a likely candidate.”
Dr. Bliss allows his gaze to dwell on Drum for a moment, apparently absorbing what he has been told, and then he turns to Dr. Dinkle. “In the future,” he says, “I should like any such nonmedical procedure to be cleared with me.”
“Naturally, sir,” says Dr. Dinkle. “It was never my — ”
“Nonmedical?” says Drum. “Why do you characterize it so?”
“Because it’s designed to probe a disciplinary concern,” says Dr. Bliss, “and not to cure illness.”
“Oh, make no mistake,” says Drum. “We’ve cured many a soldier this way of what ‘ailed’ him. The lame walk again, the deaf hear, and the dumb speak. Why, there’s been more than one idler who — ”
“All right, Dr. Drum,” says Dr. Bliss, “I don’t mean to debate you, certainly not here and not now. I am this hospital’s surgeon in chief. I only aim to hone a point of protocol with my ward surgeons. Now, I thank you for your time.”
“But this soldier has proved authentic,” says Drum quickly, “the genuine article, red-hot nostalgia. I’m told he suffers delusions to boot. I’m keen to have him moved to my own hospital, where we’re doing marvelous things on our own hook … marvelous things with a great range of nervous disorders and — ”
“It is a reasonable course,” says Dr. Dinkle, clasping Drum by the elbow — evidently intending to rein him in even while supporting his cause.
“I’ll take it under consideration,” says Dr. Bliss, with a conclusive tone.
Dr. Dinkle thanks Dr. Bliss and against some noticeable resistance escorts Dr. Drum away.
The captain, seeing the party break up without his having contributed, faces the surgeon in chief and stands very tall. “I wonder if it has occurred to you, Major Bliss, that you might be harboring a deserter.”
The surgeon smiles impassively and says, “I wonder if it has occurred to you that you might be impugning a hero.”
Hayes, neither a deserter nor a hero, suppresses an urge to laugh — it suddenly strikes him as comical, his being fought over this way; likewise, in equal parts absurd and fitting, his name tag, which reads UNKNOWN.
“We want that bed,” says the captain, narrowing his eyes at the surgeon. “I don’t need to tell you what we’ve got landing at our doors daily … landing daily and by the hundreds.”
“No, Captain Gracie,” says Dr. Bliss, “you don’t need to tell me.”
“If you won’t let him go to Philadelphia, at least there’s the asylum. Surely — ”
“Yes, Captain,” says Dr. Bliss. “Thank you very much.”
Walt, who has released Hayes’s hand, now takes out his handkerchief and wipes his own brow; he lets out a long sigh and shifts in his chair, agitated and indignant. “Do you not outrank that man, that insufferable Captain Gracie?”
“Of course I do, Walt,” answers Dr. Bliss, “but rank isn’t everything. One has to maintain relations. The men in these beds are patients and soldiers. I can’t be drawn into constant squabbles over who’s in charge of them.”
“But you won’t give our friend over to that nippent little Drum, will you, and let him be carted off to Philadelphia? And surely you won’t send him to the asylum?”
Dr. Bliss pulls on his whiskers thoughtfully and looks at Hayes. “I’m not certain I can prevent it,” he says. “He can’t stay here indefinitely.”
“But he won’t stay indefinitely,” says Walt. “After all, the war will end. If it’s a case of not knowing what to do with him — which I believe it is — why can’t we leave him be for now? If we don’t yet have our answer, let’s wait for it to come clear. Things often do, you know … come clear with ample time and tolerance.”
“I’m beginning to see the nature of your attraction to this young man,” says Dr. Bliss. “It’s philosophical.”
“Not at all,” says Walt, and looks out the window. “He attracts me the same way they all do — which is to say, affectively. How can I fail to be attracted when my feelings are so thoroughly and permanently absorbed?”
He looks back at the doctor and says, “If it’s merely the question of a bed, I can bring him to my own rooms and give him one.”
“Now that would be irregular,” says Dr. Bliss. “Look, Walt, I want you to go home, and I don’t mean back to your rooms. I mean for you to get back to Brooklyn, at least for a few months. Otherwise, you’re bound for a full collapse.”
Walt closes his eyes for a moment and bows his head. “I’ll not deny that I’m sleeping less than first-rate,” he says softly. “And more and more I feel I must have an intermission. But I won’t be going tonight. Nor tomorrow. Tomorrow’s my birthday.”
Bliss moves between the beds and puts a hand on Walt’s shoulder. “Well, he’s not going anywhere tonight or tomorrow either,” he says. “I’ll do what I can for him, Walt. A direct opposition’s not always the best strategy. Have you never said yes and meant no?”
“Probably,” says Walt, “once or twice.” He laughs and adds, “But not nearly so often as I’ve said no and meant yes.”
“I want you to go to your rooms,” says the surgeon, after a moment. “Have yourself a good supper and bath and a good night’s rest. Don’t return to the hospital this evening.”
For another moment, the two men seem to ponder Hayes — the surgeon with his hand still resting on Walt’s shoulder, and Walt with cloudy eyes. At last Dr. Bliss says, “Don’t you think you might write your name for us now, son? There’s no physical reason why you shouldn’t.”
Walt bends, reaches into his bag, pulls out first a large orange and a pair of suspenders, both of which he lays aside, and then his scrapbook and a pencil. He offers these last two to Hayes, one in each hand.
Hayes, shocked to be addressed so suddenly, believes he can in fact write his name, and might do it, despite his ambivalence about revealing his identity. But as he looks at the scrapbook and the pencil, the two hands holding them are horribly charred, tumid with great watery blisters, and he shudders and draws his knees toward his chest. A burnt and sickening sweet smell invades his nostrils. He rolls onto his side and puts his back to the men.
“Did you see the blood leave his face?” he hears Walt say, somewhere behind him, far away. “He’s terrified. Never mind, dear boy, never mind.”
Hayes doesn’t move, willing his limbs to stay frozen, despite a sharp sting of boots smacking his ribs. He fears his shrapnel wounds have started to bleed.
He thinks, I’m told he suffers delusions to boot, and encounters a peculiar puzzlement over the word boot.
Back to the front, he thinks, an absurd yet fascinating phrase.
He thinks, I mean for you to get back to Brooklyn, and envisions himself seated alongside Walt in a railcar, Walt patting him on the knee, and saying with his curious compound of maternal maleness, “We’re almost home, my dear.”
“Now, Walt,” says Dr. Bliss. “Here’s a thorny question: should we wish for our young friend to gain back his speech, or wish for him not to?”
“Ah, yes,” says Walt. “Down one road waits a Gracie, down the other a Drum. Scylla and Charybdis. I wonder … have you seen this thing before — what you call nostalgia — and coupled with loss of speech?”
“Twice before,” answers the doctor. “Each suffered temporary loss of hearing as well … symptoms associated with a shell exploding close-by. But I’ve heard of others—soldiers released from Confederate prisons, for example — who’d simply gone mute in the face of unspeakable horror.”
“Unspeakable horror?” says Walt. “If that’s the case, I’m surprised you don’t see more of them.”
“We very well might,” says the doctor, “if more of them survived.”
“Oh, of course,” says Walt, “they would have to survive, wouldn’t they?”
After a long pause, Walt adds, “Maybe it’s not so bad, losing the so-called art of speech. Most of life gives language the slip anyway, I find. Look at me: I rattle all day long and into the night and say only a fraction of what I feel, a fraction of what I know in my heart.”
“Well,” says Dr. Bliss, “maybe some men’s fractions are better than other men’s sums.”
“Ha!” says Walt. “Let me assure you — for each of my fractions, there are worlds and worlds and worlds of uncertainties. It’s almost enough to make me wish I’d been a doctor.”
To share the poem-a-day experience, pass along this link »