Gender During Wartime

Whitman's war-poem "The Wound-Dresser" registers in a similar way the cultural anxiety surrounding gender, nursing, and soldiering.

The poem begins with the classic question, "What did you do in the war, daddy?" Here, though, it is a rather more ambiguous scenario, not necessarily involving children, signaling even this early the poem's (at least partial) revision of the "standard story":

Whitman's The Wound-Dresser

The poem begins to answer in the standard way, until it seems that it is only second-hand--only in fantasy--that these battle scenes are being remembered:

Whitman's The Wound-Dresser

But whether fantasy or not, what is central to see about the poem is that it refigures nursing as a soldierly service, filled with the same rush and charge of energy, commotion, bloody sights, and requiring a strong, "manly" character; thus the parenthetical warning to the reader:

Whitman's The Wound-Dresser

Thus a poem that seems not to question the validity of nursing nevertheless cannot evade the larger cultural anxiety about manliness. The poem even goes so far as to construct a straw man, the reader, against whose presumably feminine fearfulness the poem contrasts the manliness of the soldier-nurse speaker.

At the same time the poem insists on locating its primal site of emotional value in a passionate, loving, and possibly erotic "burning flame" "deep in my breast." Recall the poem's final, parenthetical lines: "(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested,/ Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)"

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