Review of “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” by Walt Whitman

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“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” is a Walt Whitman poem in the Drum Taps section of Leaves of Grass. Ironically, the section begins with a poem called “First O Songs for a Prelude” which deals with a different kind of march – the patriotic pep-talk inspiring and praising the quick response to take up arms and go to war. But as the reader traverses Whitman’s poetic fare in this section the ebullient flag waving gives way to the somber realities the author would experience or observe. Although Whitman was educated, older than many in uniform, and dealt with the wounded, his personality and writing style favored the common man. After all, he still aspired to be and maintain the position of America’s Poet.

While reading this poem I had no trouble imagining Whitman, while working with the wounded, observing a slew of platoon buddies seeking news of fallen friends, or seeing the newbies drawn to the carnage as if receiving a christening before their baptism under fire. And Whitman, always the writer, could not help but empathize and imagine himself in their shoes.

“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” places the reader into the mind of an average soldier in the Civil War. Like most common troops this young man endures the drudgery, the forced marches from one unknown location to another. The body wearying travel is usually only broken-up with momentary rest periods, or battle preparation followed by skirmish after skirmish – until the brass, on one side or the other, decides they have had enough loss at this location and sends them to another before confronting the enemy again.

The soldier marches with the column in darkness. This time they are the ones in retreat: “Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating.” And retreats are often made under the cover of darkness, and usually throughout the night with only momentary stops. It is during one of those brief halts that this poem primarily focuses on. They draw toward, then rest beside a large church, dimly lit, that is now a makeshift field hospital.

The soldier knows it will be a brief stop, but he is drawn to the “impromptu hospital,” and he sees “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” It is one of those experiences no one ever thinks about during the rally ‘round the flag speeches when seeking volunteers to recruit. And I have no doubt that Whitman experienced the pride of patriotism shown in the beginning Drum Taps collection, just as he experienced a change after witnessing the savagery of war. Yet each individual deals with it in their own manner. Some, usually the newbies, have an innocent morbid curiosity. Others have an intense compassion for their fellow man. And still others will not be caught dead around a hospital (unless wounded). Whitman, however, always seems to portray a sense of compassion during these somber encounters:

“At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding

to death, (he is shot through the abdomen).

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the younster’s face is white as a lily).”

And instead of blocking out the scene this soldier wants to see it all: to remember it. And I cannot help but feel that a similar event evoked those feelings in Whitman during his war experience. The curiosity of the writer is so clear in the following passage:

“Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to absorb it all.”

And the scene he describes is not eye-candy; it is human horror, a living nightmare. And this nightmare cannot be contained – not even within the church (such an iconic symbol used in the contrasting reality).

“The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill’d.

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the

death-spasm sweating.”

This soldier takes it all in. He does not shield his eyes or turn away.

Is Whitman merely recalling personal experience? Or is Whitman still keen on being the poetic voice of America? After all, how does a young country evoke change if it is not willing to confront its problems head-on, with eyes wide open?

The problems facing the Nation at this time were especially hard because they turned brother against brother. It was a solemn duty, a responsibility, to get America back on track. But the outcome was impossible to predict in the initial stages of the war. And Whitman shows us in the use of metaphor. After the soldier takes in the harsh reality, the rest period is over; it is time to resume the march:

“Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, fall in;

But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me.

Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,

Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,

The unknown road still marching.”

Like the soldier, the Nation was marching on an unknown road: it marched against itself, and even the best possible outcome would create a rift between the warring states that would require generations to heal.

 

Self-determination & responsibility, constructive defeat, and repatriation

[Three short essays]

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Self-Determination & Responsibility

Native Americans have a long history of fighting to retain as much self-determination and sovereignty as they possibly can. It has not been easy and they have had to deal with more than their share of obstacles and setbacks along the way. However, the last half of the 20th Century saw large advances in their favor. The Native American community has recovered much of what has been taken from, or denied them. They are no longer looked upon as second class citizens. They have fought for and acquired their legal rights. They have demanded and received a voice in matters that concern them, such as the management of reservation resources, watering and fishing rights, health care, education, etc. Tribal governing has become a reality, not just a puppet show with the U.S. Government pulling all the strings. There are still some areas to tackle in the complex nature of self-governing or sovereignty when still relying on the U.S. Government for financial assistance in many areas. The adage, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” is still valid to some degree. But like a child fighting for their independence when coming of age, the Native American community has successfully utilized the knowledge acquired under the U.S. Government’s tutelage/support to strengthen their position and step out from under the Government’s wings. After all, the American eagle belonged to them first.

Self-determination and sovereignty in the 21st Century will continue to see strides made by the Native American community. However, they will never truly possess complete sovereignty until they master the various reservation bound problems, such as dropout rates, alcoholism, drugs, teen pregnancy, suicide, etc. This needs to occur in order to elevate the overall education levels, do away with rampant reservation unemployment, and create a solid reservation economy so they are not so dependent upon the U.S. Government handouts. If 30-50% of individual reservations remain below poverty lines and its citizen’s grow-up with a handout mentality the overall community will never completely break free of Uncle Sam peering over their shoulder and having a strong voice in certain areas of their life. It is similar to a child who leaves the nest, but still relies on their parents to pay for their education, health care, and other major costs still being obligated to their parents. They can never be truly independent until they can handle all the costs and responsibilities for themselves.

Sovereignty is not simply having the right to self-govern; it is handling all the responsibilities of your people, costs and all. I believe the Native American community can eventually reach this goal, but it is going to require a lot of hard work and life-changing decisions on the reservations… and not just from their capable leaders.

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Constructive Defeat

The concept of “constructive defeat” with regard to Native Americans is as follows: the chiefs and other elders of a tribe (or tribes) would press an issue, even though they knew they would eventually lose, in order to avoid a strict unconditional defeat. By pressing an issue long enough – whether through warfare, negotiation, or legal means – and becoming a thorn in the proverbial side of U.S. governmental expansion, the government representatives would be more willing to allow the tribe(s) to retain a say in the final outcome. The tribes who utilized this tactic to the best advantage ended up with larger reservations, greater provisions, and better treaty rights: including hunting and fishing rights off the reservation.

The treaty rights given under the Stevens treaties (and others) in the 19th Century are an example of “constructive defeat.” Not only did they allow certain tribes to hunt and fish off their reservations immediately following the treaty negotiations, those same rights eventually became the legal leg to stand on when Native Americans in the 20th Century found themselves at odds with the government and progress once more.

In places like Celilo Falls and other locations along the Columbia River various conflicts between Native Americans, non-Natives, private interests, and the Government erupted over water rights, fishing, and other disputes. Fishing canneries, dams, and other obstacles were taking their toll on traditional Indian catch sites. Skirmishes, fraudulent claims, and finger-pointing increased with each side polarizing against the others. Legal battles became common place, and some of the more complex cases would last beyond a decade. But a trend eventually began to be noticed: many of the treaty rights were being upheld. And even when treaty areas had to be sacrificed in the name of progress, it was becoming apparent that proper compensation had to be given to the Native Americans affected. Furthermore, the trend continued until not only compensation was given but Native Americans were getting power to have a voice in subsequent actions regarding water rights, fishing, unallotted reservation land, and various other concerns that they had little say about in previous years.

The “constructive defeats” 100-150 years earlier were coming back to reap dividends far beyond what the early elders could have imagined. They never dreamed of massive dams, hydro-electric power, fish hatcheries, and being an integral part in the decision making process during their time of conflict with encroaching settlers, military battles with the ever-growing cavalry, and imposing policies of an expansion driven Government. But they did have a strong urge for self-determination that allowed them to fight and retain as much of their way of life as they could. Their descendants should be proud.

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Repatriation

The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It came on the heels of a 1989 Congressional law requiring the Smithsonian Institute to return most of its skeletal remains and grave goods to Native American communities. Although the law garnered strong public opinion in favor of the Native American community, it sparked controversy that has continued in some areas till present-day. By passing NAGPRA two prior laws, the 1906 Antiquities Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 were overturned. The earlier laws declared that Native American bones and other objects or remains discovered on federal land were the property of the United States. Naturally, as the Indian movement began to mature, and Native Americans found themselves with more power, a legal leg to stand on, and public opinion in their favor, they took on more and more causes related to self-determination and sovereignty. This was one of those causes.

The decision in favor of repatriation of Native American remains and grave goods has led to expanding battles to reclaim religious artifacts and even the use of sacred sites. There are still opposing forces who believe this trend is going too far. The remains of other nationalities, including Whites, are still exhibited and there is no equal effort to pacify every nationality in this same manner. Likewise, the remains of outlaws, carnival freak show attractions, war dead, and various other remains are studied and put on display. Thus, the opposing factions want to know why favoritism is now in play for the Native Americans. And other opposing groups, those in the hard hit fields of archaeology, anthropology, and those in charge of the educational and tourist attractions (museums, etc), though trying to work in collaboration with the Native Americans, still feel that advancing knowledge should be given a higher priority than it is presently. Thus, the controversy will most likely continue.

An interesting parallel regarding the NAGPRA controversy is how it can be shown to emulate the Native American experience over the past two centuries. When the governments of England, France, and Spain began their push to expand their domains in America they had little regard for the Indian obstacle. Dishonest trade, land grabs, force of arms, and various other strategies became the norm among themselves and against Indians. When the American government was established westward expansion took on a whole new meaning in terms of speed. Tribes were pushed off their lands, their way of life was disrupted in various ways, and burial sites and items meant little or nothing to a land hungry nation. Most of the tribes were scattered to the winds, placed on reservations, and some became extinct. That fact parallels their skeletal remains, confiscated items, and sacred ways: sent faraway, locked in exhibits, studied, and/or destroyed. The fate of both tribes and their remains and relics were in the hands of the U.S. government. Fortunately, it did not remain that way indefinitely.

When the Indian movement began to take shape after decades of striving to retain self-determination and sovereignty, the Native American communities began to achieve greater control on their behalf. After being pawns in the expansion game of the Government, blown about on the winds of governmental whims, the winds of change now favored them. The Native American community came together in a Pan-Indian effort. And as their power and rights grew they saw the opportunity to push for repatriation of remains and relics. So now the remains and relics are coming back to where they belong – like the Native American community has likewise been returning to its more traditional way of life, beliefs, etc.

 

Mary Bell liked to kill

 

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In merry old England, in the spring of sixty-eight

There was a girl named Mary Bell that fed on hate

At the ripe old age of eleven

She sent two little boys to heaven

Plus five failed attempts left the little bitch irate

 

Mary even choked her accomplice Norma Bell: not related

A girl dumb enough to still hang with Mary in acts ill-fated

But she took her chance to squeal

After cutting herself a deal

So Mary was locked up with Norma free, but now hated

 

Despite signs of mutilation the court convicts of manslaughter

“Eye-for-an-eye” is out the window when it’s someone’s daughter

The last of her brief fame

A three day escape game

When she gave up her virginity, and spoke of blood flowing like water

Kate Bender and her felonious family: America’s first serial killers

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The “Bloody Benders” were a hell of a family

They spent part of their lives on a killing spree

Sister Kate the attraction

With victims a distraction

A cold-blooded flirting; but their death not a fantasy

 

Pa “Bill” was the head of this fiendish clan

By all accounts he was a mountain of a man

Fathered John, a dumb son

Yet both killed for fun

And a means to prosper in their adopted new land

 

Eleven travelers at their Kansas inn waylaid

Hammer to skulls and slit throats was how the corpses were made

Then stripped and robbed in the cellar

By accomplice kin of the killer

And buried in Ma’s garden where they finally stayed

 

A percentage who care for this sort of bloody history

Prefer to keep the Bender’s fates shrouded in mystery

Cuz’ justice wasn’t served by the courts

All we have are three reports

Of vigilante justice by the vengeful hands of a posse

 

Colonel York was the brother of the Bender’s last kill

He swore that he would see all Bender’s sent to hell

A much deserved fate

They even burned Kate

So say posse members who threw their bodies down a well

 

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Jack Helm: a lawless lawman

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Jack Helm was a racist S.O.B.

Who wore the grey and favored slavery.

He even did wrong

Over a Yankee song

That a black man whistled with bravery.

 

And when there was no Civil War,

You could find him with a star that he bore

In the great state of Texas

Where he hated the Mex’s,

And everyone else that’s for sure.

 

Helm got caught-up in the Sutton-Taylor feud;

The type of duty that befit his evil mood.

A prime instigator,

He was head regulator,

And the days he didn’t kill he’d sulk and brood.

 

His body count raised his reputation.

The Governor even gave him a new station.

But when deeds come to light

Causing citizen’s fright,

He’s sent back to DeWitt for the duration.

 

John Wesley Hardin was one of Helm’s foes:

A kin to the Taylor’s, or so the story goes.

Several times they met,

Their back-ups vented and wet,

Yet Hardin and Helm escaped the death throes.

 

But in eighteen-seventy-three, in the month of July,

The two evil rivals would have one more try.

Helm came from the rear,

Hardin turned with a sneer,

To blast Helm with buckshot: his day to die.

 

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Black Elk Speaks

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The biographical text indeed has a poetic flare (though not entirely) to it that comes across from the introduction onward, and can be seen in both Black Elk and John Neihardt’s speech and writing. For instance, Neihardt writes the following:

“Little else but weather ever happened in that country – other than the sun and moon and stars going over – and there was little for the old man to do but wait for yesterday (p.xxiii).”

 

And Black Elk’s normal manner of speech sings with the aged simplicity of wisdom and the colorful style of the long ago Indian, as seen in the following passages:

“What I know was given to me for men and it is true and it is beautiful. Soon I shall be under the grass and it will be lost (p.xxv).”

“I was born in the Moon of the Popping Trees on the Little Powder River in the Winter When the Four Crows Were Killed (p.7).” Continue reading

Henry David Thoreau: Walden

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During a writing course I attended the class was encouraged to give Henry David Thoreau a chance, and I set my mind to do so, but it did not take long to realize that may be a little more difficult than first imagined. Within the first several pages I got the impression that Thoreau was stuck on himself, captivated by his own voice, and yet, he seemingly contradicts himself more than the Emerson piece we dealt with earlier. For instance, he boasts about building his own cabin in the woods (a mere mile from his neighbors) and diligently surviving two years from the toil of his hands and the sweat of his brow, then he lambasts first the farmers for equal diligence in maintaining a plot of land for their homes, what he calls “a fool’s life” (7), then he targets the equally “foolish” strivings of most men, who, in his eyes, toil religiously with nothing to show for it. He says the “finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (7).

Thoreau did make one statement early on that was rather profound. He said, “It is hard to have a southern overseer (referring to slave masters); worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” But then, just when I wanted to give him another chance to impress me, he waxes poetic, but without common sense. He begins with the following statement: “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof” (9). And he follows that with the adage “what’s true today may prove false tomorrow” (9), which is acceptable, but the use of “no” in the former statement stipulates an all-inclusive reality that inevitably proves the contention false, since various truths, once discovered, have been and still are handed down from generation-to-generation.

Furthermore, in an attempt to confirm his view, Thoreau seemingly digs himself a deeper ideological grave. He contends “old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new” (9), and claims, “I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from any seniors” (9). And he further states that they can never tell him anything of purpose.

I say that he who has not, does not, and cannot learn anything from others, especially elders, is a fool by all relevant standards. But I will continue through the text with the hope of finding something redemptive along the way. However, I do find that I enjoy reading Thoreau more when I cease efforts to ascertain his personal beliefs and simply enjoy his writing style and how he represents his Walden experiences. For instance, after buying a shanty for boards he recalls passing the family as they were leaving and says, “One large bundle held their all, — bed, coffee-mill, looking-glass, hens, — all but the cat, she took to the woods and became a wild cat, and, as I learned afterward, trod in a trap set for woodchucks, and so became a dead cat at last” (33). And when speaking of a neighbor visiting, Thoreau writes, “He was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy” (33). And I found his admiration of the cellar, the longest lasting section of the home in his eyes, better than the house above it oddly interesting. He states, “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” (34); which equally embodies the nature aspect he is expounding on.

Inevitably, I found Walden fairly enjoyable to read only after I skimmed over any of his futile attempts to be philosophical.