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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Great American Poems :: Whitman Writes About Texas

One hundred eighty-nine years ago . . . in November of 1821 . . . in the extended branches of our family tree . . . a young man by the name of James F. WALKER had just recently resigned from the the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. He had been raised in Georgia by his maternal grandpa -- James W. WALKER -- and he would now return to the state of his birth. Here he would become a merchant, and would marry Miss Minerva FORT, with whom he would have two daughters. 

In the autumn of 1834 this man and his family removed to Velasco, Texas, where he would become a planter and managing partner in a slave-trading syndicate. By now, he is using the surname (FANNIN) of his deceased birth-father -- Isham Saffold FANNIN (1778-1817) -- who in 1809 (when James was 5 years of age) had married my 4th great-grand-aunt, Margaret PORTER (1791-1830).

According to The Texans from the Old West Series published by Time-Life Books . . . 

FANNIN was 32, a tall, gangling Georgian who had arrived in Texas in 1834 and quickly built up a profitable business in land speculations and slave-trading. He had performed well as a volunteer in the fighting around San Antonio, and Houston had offered him a colonelcy in the regular army he was organizing. FANNIN boldly requested a brigadier's commission, which he said he could handle "better than any officer." HOUSTON had made him settle for the colonelcy. . . .

By November of 1835, this young man is a mere four months away from the day of his murder . . . several communications during this time period (those written to, from and / or about him) can be read at . . . Sons of DeWitt Colony Texas.


Almost four months later . . . on Palm Sunday . . . the 27th day of March . . . in the year 1836 . . . Col. James Walker FANNIN is one of more than 300 men who are massacred at Goliad . . .

Another twenty years later . . . in November of 1855 . . . and reviewers of Leaves of Grass are declaring Walt WHITMAN's "own version of unrhymed, long-lined poetry" as "indecent, bold, curious, lawless, obscene" . . . WHITMAN (1819-1892) begins this collection of words as follows . . .

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. . . .
About half-way through this self-published Poem of Walt Whitman (1856) this native of Rhode Island tells a tale of a land called Texas . . . from 1836 . . .

Now I tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth;
I tell not the fall of Alamo . . . . Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,
The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo.

Hear now the tale of a jetblack sunrise,
Hear of the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men.

Retreating, they had formed in a hollow square with their baggage for breastworks,
Nine hundred lives out of the surrounding enemy’s nine times their number was the price they took in advance,
Their colonel was wounded and their ammunition gone,
They treated for an honorable capitulation, received writing and seal, gave up their arms, and marched back prisoners of war.

They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with horse, a rifle, a song, a supper or a courtship,
Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud and affectionate,
Bearded, sunburnt, dressed in the free costume of hunters,
Not a single one over thirty years of age.

The second Sunday morning they were brought out in squads and massacred . . . . it was beautiful early summer,
The work commenced about five o’clock, and was over by eight.

None obeyed the command to kneel,
Some made a mad and helpless rush . . . . some stood stark and straight,
A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart . . . . the living and dead lay together.

The maimed and mangled dug in the dirt . . . . the new-comers saw them there;
Some half-killed attempted to crawl away,
These were dispatched with bayonets or battered with the blunts of muskets;

A youth not seventeen years old seized his assassin till two more came to release him,
The three were all torn, and covered with the boy’s blood.

At eleven o’clock began the burning of the bodies;
And that is the tale of the murder of the four hundred and twelve young men,
And that was a jetblack sunrise. . . .


Whitman closes this Song of Myself (1881) as follows . . .

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.

It was with great delight that I read the notice that Bill West would once again be hosting his Great American Local Poem & Song Genealogy Challenge . . . and that this year (2010) he is dedicating it to the memory of Terry Thornton (1939-2010) . . . a geneablogger, and a fellow lover of local poetry and folklore. . . . for you, Terry . . .

In the white moonlight,
where the willow waves,
He halfway gallops
among the graves --
A tiny ghost
in the gloom and gleam,
Content to dwell
where the dead men dream . . .


Bill West said...

Vickie, great research and a great poem. I'm going to check out all of those links.

Thanks for taking part in the Challenge!

Judith Richards Shubert said...

Vickie, you're always amazing me at your continuous knowledge of Texas. I love reading your blog and since my great-great-grandfather Richards was arrested by Sam Houston during this time period, I'm particularly interested in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Susan Clark said...

Fascinating! I've only tangential connections to Texas (Tennesseans who left) but this is amazing stuff - great poetry and history. Thanks so much for expanding my knowledge.

Nancy said...

What a lot of information you packed into this post. And I love Whitman's poetry. Thanks for sharing your research and knowledge.

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