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Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, published in 1882, provides an extraordinary picture of an aging poet reassessing the path of his long life, one intrinsically linked with the trajectory—and traumas—of the nation he cherished so deeply. The book, with its diary-like entries, is a prose compilation of a life lived richly and in the service of others, as well as an enduring portrait of a monumental writer. Whitman collected these fragments and observations throughout his life and began to put them into a volume in 1881, perhaps spurred on by Richard Maurice Bucke, who was then writing a biography of Whitman. Specimen Days reveals the remarkable course of Whitman’s life and accomplishments, starting with his boyhood spent roaming the coast of Long Island, to his days as a writer and observer of the cities of New York and Brooklyn, to his volunteer work as a Washington field nurse during the Civil War, and finally to his serene nature writings and travel diaries as an older man. Whitman’s book of memories resounds with striking sections on war, nature, people, and travel. Composed by arguably the finest and most original of American poets, Specimen Days is an underappreciated autobiographical masterpiece by one of the most important writers of any generation in America.
Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, Long Island, on May 31, 1819. He was the son of a radical freethinking carpenter and a devout homemaker. Walter Whitman, Sr., had socialist leanings and a deep respect for Thomas Paine, author of the Revolutionary War treatise Common Sense (1876) as well as a defense of the Enlightenment principles of freedom and democracy, The Rights of Man (1792). He thereby imbued his son with a profound reverence for the American spirit, particularly its radical strains. Whitman, Sr., had difficulty establishing himself, working first as a builder and land speculator, and then as a farmer. As a result, young Walt spent his early childhood in Brooklyn, where his family seemed to be in a constant state of transition and instability. Walt’s father imparted to his son a respect for rough, working-class types, while his mother, Louisa Whitman, instilled in her child sensitivity and compassion for others. Throughout his life, Whitman maintained close ties with much of his family, although his relationship with his father was strained at best.
Whitman received little formal education. Most of his learning took place in public libraries and through hands-on experience. Before embarking on his career as a poet, Whitman worked as a schoolteacher, builder, journalist, fiction writer, printer, and editor. As a teacher, Whitman was noted by pupils and parents for his abhorrence of corporal punishment. He employed a conversational pedagogical style, bucking the prevalent method of rote memorization and regurgitation of facts.
Whitman’s first long piece of writing was a temperance novel titled Franklin Evans; Or the Inebriate: A Tale of the Times, which was published in 1842 and sold well, even though Whitman thought it to be “rot.” The book was geared toward a popular audience and played off sensational stories of debauchery and “dark reform” literature that exposed abuses found beneath the surface of society. David S. Reynolds argues that Whitman tended to transform sensational imagery and themes into a purifying, transfiguring poetics throughout the rest of his career. In 1846, Whitman became editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, one of the numerous positions he held in publishing during his life.
Whitman’s work in journalism was essential to his personal and professional development. It was during his newspaper days that he experienced the power of technology to enable journalists to inform, educate, inspire, and influence their growing readerships. Whitman began to see himself as a voice for democracy, a prophet who could bring together head, heart, libido, and limbs in a harmonious unison. Working as a journalist enabled Whitman to witness the vast spectrum of American life; he appreciated the dignity of common labor and popular entertainments, as well as the refinements of high culture and classical learning. Whitman channeled all that he saw, read, and experienced into a truly synthetic democratic whole, making room in his poetry and other writings for all of America—indeed all of humanity.
After a brief stint as a reporter for the New Orleans Crescent in 1848, Whitman returned to Brooklyn to seek the proper written outlet for his thoughts and feelings. In 1855, he found his vehicle in the twelve poems of Leaves of Grass, which became Whitman’s lifelong literary adventure into himself, the world, and the complexities of the independent, immortal soul. Leaves of Grass is Whitman’s undisputed masterpiece. It went through six editions from the original 1855 edition to the deathbed edition of 1891, which had swelled to nearly four hundred poems.
During the tumultuous years of the Civil War (1861–1865), Whitman linked his poetic development forever with his country’s fortunes. In 1862, Whitman went to Washington, D.C., to care for his brother George, who was superficially wounded in the battle at Fredericksburg. This period of his life altered the course of Whitman’s career and provided the backbone for Specimen Days. The Civil War entries of Specimen Days, particularly Whitman’s precise notes of wound tending, letter writing, and caregiving, stand as some of the most powerful passages in Civil War literature. Throughout the war, Whitman worked as a government clerk and also volunteered in field hospitals where he tended to the needs of the injured from both the Union and Confederate forces. In 1865, Whitman was fired from his government clerk position by Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, who was outraged at having the “indecent” writer of Leaves of Grass serving under his supervision. Whitman quickly found a similar position elsewhere.
The strain of service physically and emotionally took its toll on Whitman. Many friends and family members believed his Washington hospital service aged him considerably. The April 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Whitman’s iconic personal hero, upset the poet profoundly but inspired one of the great elegies in American literature, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The dark moments of the Civil War tested Whitman’s belief in the holiness of the union, but ultimately he heralded its revitalization through armed conflict.
After the Civil War, Whitman’s standing as a poet grew, particularly in England thanks to articles and collections of his poems published by William Rossetti. Two early works about Whitman, William O’Connor’s Good Gray Poet (1866) and a first biography by John Burroughs (1867), added to his reputation. Whitman moved back and forth between Washington and Brooklyn after the war, writing new poems and continuing to revise and rework Leaves of Grass. He also read one of his poems, “As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free,” at the Dartmouth College commencement in June 1872.
In 1873 Whitman endured two major setbacks: he suffered a paralytic stroke in January, and his mother died in May. Whitman subsequently took up permanent residence with his brother in Camden, New Jersey, where he famously spent the rest of his days, buying a house on Mickle Street in 1884, where he welcomed the many pilgrims who came to see the Old Gray Poet. Walt Whitman died in relative poverty on March 26, 1892, and was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden.
What is truly astonishing about Whitman’s career is his unlikely ascension into the American literary pantheon. Whitman’s life is a “rags to riches” story for the literary ages: a journeyman writer and editor with only an elementary-school education became the godfather of American poetry. Ezra Pound, while being far removed from Whitman in terms of poetics and cultural attitudes, suggested that Whitman was to the United States what Dante was to Italy. Pound acknowledged Whitman as the first American poet to write in the vernacular of his people and capture the essence of its culture. D. H. Lawrence, among many others, believed Whitman to be the true pioneering voice of America.
Whitman’s importance in the development of American literature cannot be overstated. His was an epic, new voice, proclaiming the magnificence of all Americans, regardless of social status, religious creed, race, gender, sexual orientation, or class affiliation. His poems in Leaves of Grass embodied all aspects of America’s people, its land, and its developing culture. Whitman celebrated life as it is, taking the good and the bad as integral parts of the immortal soul of human nature. Out in the deep reaches of nature as well as in the hustle of city streets, Whitman found an all-encompassing love for his country and for the world. He wrote poems that championed the grandeur of the land, the union of North and South, and the burgeoning development of the American city and countryside. By celebrating the universal brotherhood of human nature in America, Whitman reached for worldwide acceptance abroad.
Whitman’s godlike stature in American letters stems mainly from his innovations of the long poetic line and cataloguing techniques, his radical yet inclusive sensibilities, and the powerful scope of his individualistic poetic persona. However, his great prose work, Specimen Days, should not be entirely eclipsed by his poetry. Specimen Days received scant critical attention upon publication. Critics of Whitman, such as Mark Van Doren in 1945, labeled Specimen Days a real book, but a rambling one without form or a true sense of direction. In 1938, Christopher Morley asserted that beyond Whitman’s effusiveness and drifting there dwells a skilled tactician and great artist. For Morley, Whitman at his core reverberates with wisdom, quietness, and perpetual questioning. Criticism of Specimen Days was sporadic at best, and most attention was paid to the Civil War sections, cited as the “heart of the book” by Alfred Kazin in 1971.
In 1987, George B. Hutchinson related Specimen Days to a “life review,” an evaluation of one’s life as it draws to a close, commonly known to students of the aging. Such reviews typically put life matters in order, usually in old age or after severe trauma, when the writer is confronted with the prospect of mortality and looks back on the path of his or her accomplishments. Critics have only lately started to reexamine Specimen Days as a powerful work of art in its own right, perhaps aided by the energy of creative nonfiction in our current literary marketplace. Notably, contemporary writer Michael Cunningham titled his 2006 novel Specimen Days, inspired by Whitman’s memoir.
The lasting treasure of Specimen Days is Whitman’s ability to uncover the sacred in the ordinary world around him. Alfred Kazin aptly captures this power of the book: “Whitman’s instinct for ‘the beauty of the natural’ is indeed the great key to Specimen Days. He had an amazing ability to suggest the ‘divinity’ inherent in ordinary life lived in the midst of the great modern crowd. All things and persons as well as ‘days’ are ‘specimens’ to him—all instances are mysteriously expressive of more than themselves.”1 The entire volume of Specimen Days finds more in commonplace dwellings and daily activities than is perceived at first glance. The very title suggests looking at our days intently and up close just as a scientist would examine a specimen in a laboratory. Whitman’s laboratory, of course, was the world, and his senses and emotions the instruments to uncover and express what is personal and private yet universal and ubiquitous in human nature.
Specimen Days displays an intense dichotomy in Whitman’s artistry. In the opening section of the book he states: “If I do it at all, I must delay no longer. . . . Maybe if I don’t do anything else, I shall send out the most wayward, spontaneous fragmentary book ever published.” Specimen Days revels in moments of concentrated inspection and introspection, while its fragmentation mirrors life’s vicissitudes. The book details Whitman, the integrated artist and human being, on the one hand, acting and traveling in a chaotic and fragmentary world, on the other. Similarly, natural beauty and goodness intersect with the dehumanizing terror of war.
While some of the most profound passages of Specimen Days depict the affliction of others and the trauma of the writer himself during times of war and crisis, the book also presents a counterbalance: Whitman’s heavenly moments of poetic self-reflection in the serenity of nature. Throughout Specimen Days, Whitman connects himself with both nation and nature, as noted by George Hutchinson and David Drews. Whitman wrote himself into the land itself. This is deliberate and begins early in the narrative. His family’s arrival in the New World aboard the True Love in 1640 and their subsequent settling on Long Island provide the starting point for America’s poet. We see his pride in the history of his family, their roots deep in the soil of seventeenth-century America, and we witness Whitman’s coming of age as a poet of democracy in the nineteenth century.
We read about Whitman meeting General Lafayette as a child on the streets of Brooklyn along with his later recollections of Abraham Lincoln in Washington. Throughout the narrative, Whitman threads himself into the nation’s story. In successive entries early on in Specimen Days, Whitman is an observer in Manhattan, experiencing the intense energy of the city he conveys in the beautiful poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Whitman celebrates the city in successive entries: “Broadway Sights,” “Omnibus Jaunts and Drivers,” and “Plays and Operas Too.” He emerges as a man of the people, breaking down the barriers of highbrow and lowbrow culture, embracing both the common man in the street and the celebrated statesmen on equal terms. Throughout the book, we experience street culture, refined cultural occasions, and dramatic national events in successive juxtaposition.
Some of the most famous passages in Specimen Days come from Whitman’s memories from the war and his service to soldiers in the dire, makeshift hospitals. We see hell on earth; but we also witness a humanitarian at work. Whitman’s service to soldiers is inspiring, courageous, and touching. Yes, he championed the Union of the States and always celebrated the integrity of his nation as paramount; but his volunteer efforts rise above and beyond the din of battle and rhetoric. Throughout the war sections, we see Whitman bravely giving his time, money, and occasionally pieces of his soul toward the salvation of the injured and dying of both the Union and Confederate armies.
These Civil War sections, long thought of as the core of Specimen Days, depict an individual engulfed in war itself. Whitman’s descriptions of the aftermath of battle are unforgettable. For example, take a selection from “Down at the Front”: “Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands. . . . Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket.” Or a few sentences from “A Night Battle, over a Week Since”:
Then the camps of the wounded—O heavens, what scene is this? Is this indeed humanity—these butchers’ shambles? There are several of them. There they lie, in the largest, in an open space in the woods, from two hundred to three hundred poor fellows—the groans and the screams—the odor of blood, mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees—that slaughterhouse! O well is it their mothers, their sisters cannot see them—cannot conceive, and never conceived, these things. One man is shot by a shell, both in the arm and leg—both are amputated—there lie the rejected members.
These hellish scenes of warfare, piles of castoff limbs and brutal injuries, are joined with precise, poignant descriptions of soldiers recovering in hospitals. Whitman’s Civil War writings, reflected here in Specimen Days and in his poetry cycle Drum Taps, signal immediacy, being there, being active in the unfolding drama of this ghastly, yet holy, struggle. For Whitman, the Civil War tested his patriotic mission of poetic union and his undying love of country. He noted that the real war would never get down in books, but it seems evident that Whitman had drawn in vast gulps of the struggle deep down into his soul. Implicit in his reflections is the sense that Whitman suffers in body and soul during and after the war; his paralytic stroke in 1873 seems fundamentally linked with his wartime volunteerism.
Whitman’s descriptions of his recovery from stroke while sojourning at the Stafford Farm near Timber Creek, New Jersey, provide some of the finest natural descriptions of his career. Once again, Whitman seems in transcendental harmony with the peaceful world surrounding him. He recovers his health and his spirits through long walks studying nature—birds, insects, trees, water, skies. Whitman writes in “To the Spring and Brook”:
Babble on, o brook, with that utterance of thine! I too will express what I have gather’d in my days and progress, native, subterranean, past—and now thee. Spin and wind thy way—I with thee, a little while, at any rate. As I haunt thee so often, season by season, thou knowest reckest not me, (yet why be so certain? who can tell?)—but I will learn from thee, and dwell on thee—receive, copy, print from thee.
The babbling brook seems the perfect mirror for Whitman in Specimen Days; it appears to ramble over its rocks and shadows, winding its way to eternity. Following the brook, along with his other nature jaunts, brings Whitman back to health and better spirits. Nature restores his mind, body, and soul. The regenerative forces of the woods and water wash Whitman’s past war struggles away.
In the final stages of Specimen Days we experience Whitman the traveler and thinker stretching his arms to the West. This makes perfect sense when we consider Whitman’s overarching goal as an artist: to embrace the vastness of the United States. He voyages into the open spaces of the American frontier. In “The Prairies,” Whitman unfolds a piece of his homespun wisdom:
I wonder indeed if the people of this continental inland West know how much of first-class art they have in these prairies—how original and all your own—how much of the influences of a character for your future humanity, broad, patriotic, heroic, and new? how entirely they tally on land the grandeur and superb monotony of the skies of heaven, and the ocean with its waters? how freeing, soothing, nourishing they are to the soul?
The message resounds loud and clear—the vast open landscapes of America contain the greatest, most original, divine sources of poetry in themselves.
In his travels, Whitman heralded the uniqueness of his American homeland and called for new bards to celebrate its democratic spirit. It is no accident that in his final recollections in Specimen Days Whitman meditated on the deaths of writers Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Carlyle, in his volcanic prose, expressed deep skepticism about democracy, suspecting that it could spiral towards barbarism. Whitman intensely contemplated Carlyle’s passing and his ideas, but hinted at his misreading of the times. In Whitman’s remembrance of Emerson, whose thought inspired Leaves of Grass, we read a testimony to a lifelong mentor. As Whitman ponders Emerson’s grave, he notes, “We can say, as Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, It is not we who come to commemorate the dead—we reverently come to receive, if so it may be, some consecration to ourselves and daily work for him.” Whitman acknowledged Emerson’s lasting influence on his daily life and thinking. His prose attempted to connect death with the persistence of memory as a building block for our everyday lives. By pinpointing the powerful influence of others upon us, perhaps their spirits may live on and assist us to find our own words for our journeys toward death.
The final section of Specimen Days provides a fitting closure. In “Nature and Democracy—Morality,” Whitman weaves the threads of his tapestry together, connecting art, America, nature, democracy, and all people. Throughout the book, Whitman called attention to the intersection of common daily life and the tumultuous battlegrounds of his nation. His final words in Specimen Days are prophetic: “Perhaps indeed the efforts of the true poets, founders, religions, literatures, all ages, have been, and ever will be, our time and times to come, essentially the same—to bring people back from their persistent strayings and sickly abstractions, to the costless average, divine, original concrete.”
Specimen Days is thus an enduring reminder to readers to avoid being consumed and manipulated by endless distractions and mighty forces but rather to shape their own life stories in conjunction and cooperation with the divine, concrete world of today.
Ian S. Maloney holds a Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center and teaches English and American literature at St. Francis College, New York. He is a frequent collaborator with the Walt Whitman Project, has published an article on teaching Whitman in Brooklyn for the Mickle Street Review, and is author of Melville’s Monumental Imagination (Routledge, 2006).
- Kazin, Alfred. “Introduction.” Specimen Days. Boston: Godine, 1971 [xxii]