Voices in the Dead House (The American Novels)

Written by Norman Lock
Review by Mark Spencer

The ninth installment in Lock’s The American Novels series brings together literary giants Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott. It is 1863, and the American Civil War rages in the aftermath of the Union Army’s devastating defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whitman and Alcott both find themselves in Washington City, where they’ve come to nurse the wounded. Although there is no historical record that they ever met there, writes Lock, “it is not unimaginable that they could have seen each other, as the novel has it.” Through them, Lock presents “two distinct views on one of the most consequential periods in the nation’s history.”

Whitman’s poem “The Wound-Dresser” and Alcott’s Hospital Sketches provide Lock with literary points of departure. But his hero and heroine’s works are far from the only ones informing an account that scatters its literary allusions widely. Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Thoreau, Anthony Trollope, Shakespeare, Mary Wollstonecraft and many other writers are alluded to or referenced. Other sorts also make appearances: President Abraham Lincoln; statesman Daniel Webster; reformer Dorothea Dix; Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney; photographer Mathew Brady, who studied daguerreotype under Samuel F. B. Morse; and naturalist, ornithologist, and artist John James Audubon, whose “skillful hand” at painting America’s birds “called into being another order of creation.”

Lock’s lyrical prose encompasses themes ranging from American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny to racism, Whitman’s included. (“Transactions with the colored race are always complicated,” Whitman thinks.) Running notably throughout Voices in the Dead House is Lock’s continual poking at the human condition. “There is nothing for our mouths,” posits our author in his novel’s closing line, “except to eat and drink and kiss another’s lips and make believe it is enough.”