The Real War Will Never get into the Pictures

In specimen Days,  Walt Whitman speaks on the events of the “actual” war as he saw them. The horrific scenes in which he has incorporated into the various selections are not stories that he is inventing from the corners of his mind, but rather his accounts of what is taking place at the time. As he elaborate on the Battle of Bull Run, he mentions that “The men appear, at first sparsely and shame-faced enough, then thicker, in the streets of Washington…” (Specimen 20) If one takes a close look at the way in which he is articulating the event, it is obvious that he is viewing this as the observer. He was not given this information from an inside source, but rather he was the inside source giving readers the opportunity to understand what is taking place. This type of vision separates the people of today reflecting on the events of the Civil War, and those who were not in direct contact with the events during the past. In other words, our vision on the Civil War now as we take it into consideration is purely second hand.

Alan Trachtenberg, in his piece titled “Albums of War: On Reading Civil War Photographs” mentions that Mr. Brady (photographer) tried to connect people with the events of the Civil War although they may not have been present to see the actual. He mentions that “Nevertheless the point holds; photographs perpetuate a collective image of the war as a sensible event, what it must have looked like had we been there.” (p287) The purpose of the photographs is to record the natural events as they occur for the purpose of having accuracy. My problem with this is that in trying to capture exactly, Brady was able to only capture “preparations and aftermaths” (p287) Thinking in on the fact that he is capturing the preparations and the way in which the photos are taken, there is some kind of interference with the natural course of events. Rather than the photos appearing candid, it seems as though there was some kind of alteration (through poses, through the articles chosen to be displayed, and etc) that takes the truth away from the photos. Just like the camera obscura that demands the transcriber to look away from nature to capture such, Mr. Brady had to do the same. He looked away from the natural in order to present what people expected of war. The actual war was not depicted either because he jumped from the preparation to the aftermath. What has our vision misses? The most important aspects, because a war does not simply consist of a beginning and end, but it is the in between that gives life to the event.

At that time, the Stereoscope was a major invention. It allowed many to see the photographs in three dimensional scenes allowing the viewer to feel as though they were actually there. “In actual presentation the image underwent other transformation of status. None more crucial for the evolution of a popular culture in the decade of the war than  that represented by the stereograph. Indeed so popular was this mode of dissemination that any discussion of the Civil War photographs and problems of reading they pose must take the stereograph into account.” (291) The stereoscope brought the events to life for its viewers, and made it seem as though they are actual partakers in the event. The people wanted reality brought to them, for it is only when they are staring reality in the face that it becomes obvious that they are seeing. On the contrast it is still not the real version of seeing because the event has already passed. The most a viewer can do is imagine what it would be like. Knowing is not definite when you are looking through different lenses on an event.

Whitman talks of young men who have lost limbs, and others who have been amputated. He speaks of the dull instruments, and the young lost souls who just need someone to talk to them in their last and final hours. He is depicting to readers “exactly” as he views them. The only problem with this form of vision is that once again, readers are not physically viewing the same events that Whitman is able to describe. Instead they are subjected to the ways in which he describes the events. His interpretation of the war and its casualties are removing the reality of the event itself. This is his point of view. I believe that he would agree with this statement because he himself states that “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, of the Secession war; and it is best they should not- the real war will never get in the books.” (Specimen 101) In other words, hearing his detailed depiction of his experience in seeing the actual, and by viewing the photographs taken by Mr. Brady does not make one actually “see” the war. One can get a feel of what occurred, but there is a difference with actually being there, hearing the cries, seeing the red crimson blood, and the stench of the dead.

3 Responses to “The Real War Will Never get into the Pictures”

  1.   Dominique Says:

    How many different ways can we read Whitman’s statement: “the real war will never get in the books”? Certainly the inability of the early cameras to capture action scenes meant that the “real” battle scenes would not be captured. Are there any other ways to read Whitman’s assertion? How can we read it in line with Trachtenberg’s broader argument about photo albums, captions, and narratives? Why does Trachtenberg seem to concede that even an entire album doesn’t capture the “real war”?


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