Voices in the Dead House
Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott meet the horrors of the Civil War as they minister to its casualties
After the Union Army’s defeat at Fredericksburg in 1862, Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott converge on Washington to nurse the sick, wounded, and dying. Whitman was a man of many contradictions: egocentric yet compassionate, impatient with religiosity yet moved by the spiritual in all humankind, bigoted yet soon to become known as the great poet of democracy. Alcott was an intense, intellectual, independent woman, an abolitionist and suffragist, who was compelled by financial circumstance to publish saccharine magazine stories yet would go on to write the enduring and beloved Little Women. As Lock captures the musicality of their unique voices and their encounters with luminaries ranging from Lincoln to battlefield photographer Mathew Brady to reformer Dorothea Dix, he deftly renders the war’s impact on their personal and artistic development.
Inspired by Whitman’s poem “The Wound-Dresser” and Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, the ninth stand-alone book in The American Novels series is a masterful dual portrait of two iconic authors who took different paths toward chronicling a country beset by prejudice and at war with itself.
Lock (Tooth of the Covenant) delivers immersive accounts of Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott during the American Civil War in the evocative latest installment of his American Novels cycle. The two writers work at Washington, D.C., field hospitals in 1862 and 1863, but never meet each another. In parallel interior monologues, Whitman and Alcott bemoan the unsanitary medical practices and reflect on their character flaws, as Whitman battles his narcissism and grandiosity, and Alcott frets over her temper and physical appearance. While Lock portrays how they successfully cared for the soldiers and lifted their spirits Whitman by talking with them and writing letters on their behalf, and Alcott by serving as a nurse he also lays bare their historically verifiable ignorance on racial equality, as demonstrated by Whitman openly expressing doubt that emancipation would be worth the sacrifice of so many lives a thought taken verbatim from his journals and letters. Both Alcott and Whitman bristle at behavior they interpret as insolence or sullenness from Black people in response to their presumed generosity. The landscape and environs of D.C. are memorably described, and Lock's uncanny gift for reproducing the literary voices of his narrators goes beyond mere pastiche. This insightful double portrait brings both Whitman and Alcott into sharp focus.