In October 1865, a 22-year-old wordsmith living on Ashburton Place, behind the Massachusetts State House, filed what has to be one of the nastiest book reviews ever published. The volume before him was “an insult to art,” a brash and haughty Henry James told readers of The Nation, a then-months-old New York weekly. Written in free verse, each line beginning “in resolute independence of its companions, without a visible goal,” the book demonstrated, according to James, “the efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”
The poet himself James found downright distasteful. “Mr. Whitman,” he harrumphed, “is very fond of blowing his own trumpet.”
Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps,” a collection of Civil War-themed poems, was first published 150 years ago this month, just a few weeks after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of Whitman’s idol, President Abraham Lincoln. With scenes from the army camps, paeans to Manhattan and the American flag, and stories of wartime America from a variety of perspectives, it traced the whole arc of a war with which Whitman had been intimately involved. But the poet’s ambitions were grander still — Whitman evoked a vision of the country he thought the newly reunited states should aspire to become.