Rising Up and Rising Down

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Excerpt from:

Rising up and Rising Down

William T. Vollmann

Justifications: Self-Defense

pg.304-305

“Walt Whitman will later remember the fateful moments of the war, and of Lincoln’s career, as silences, from the very first time he sees Lincoln in New York City, Lincoln then unpopular almost to friendlessness, and this crowd which has cheered so many other dignitaries looks upon him with soundless hostility: Lincoln returns their gaze with pleasant curiosity, not apprehension. Is this mere hagiography? I think not. Whitman’s writings breathe an eloquent calm. Comes the news from Fort Sumter. At Midnight, a man reads out the telegram to a crowd of some thirty or forty people who listen beneath a hotel’s streetlamps, stand wordlessly, then dissolve. Whitman is there. Perhaps he feels then what his President feels. Next the Union loses at Bull Run; and in the drizzle, exhausted, filthy soldiers march or straggle into the fearful Washington almost in silence, “half our lookers-on secesh of the most venomous kind – they say nothing; but the devil snickers in their faces.” Halfway through the war, Whitman goes to “look at the President’s house” by moonlight, at “the palace-like, tall round columns, spotless as snow.” The sentries in their blue overcoats again are silent, “stopping you not at all, but eyeing you with sharp eyes, whichever way you move.” Whitman remembers how for fear of assassination the President had to be smuggled into the Capitol for his own inauguration, and guarded at that ceremony by sharpshooters; with his earnest belief in popular sovereignty he hopes that this first such defense of highest authority in the United States will be the last; but one of history’s many tasks is to prove to new nations that they are no more virtuous than anyone else. In the twentieth century, McKinley will be  democratically approachable and die from an anarchist’s bullet; Kennedy will be murdered at a greater distance by another of John Wilkes Booth’s spawn, the righteous loner, sovereign of his own self and hence answerable to no authority but that which he chooses to recognize – this is freedom and manliness? God knows the self is sovereign and thus has the right to rise up against tyrants, but who exactly is tyrant here? – Silence, always silence precedes the fateful change; the act  is not the change but its consequence. Silence at Lincoln’s murder, says the chronicler-poet; Whitman’s mother cooks as usual, but that day she and he cannot eat. Silence in the hospital tents; he becomes a volunteer nurse, distributing money, stationery, tobacco and berry preserves, writing letters and comforting those who would have him do so; when a soldier hangs between life and death the attendant puts a finger to her lips, warning others not to disturb him in his struggle.”

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