Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Collect (1882)
Author:
LeMaster, J.R.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Specimen Days & Collect was issued by Rees Welsh and Company in 1882, shortly after James R. Osgood and Company withdrew its November 1881 issue of Leaves of Grass from circulation in April of 1882, apparently because of a warning from a Boston district attorney over obscenity charges. As a result of the Boston banning, sales of Whitman's books increased sharply, and Rees Welsh and Company was apparently eager to capitalize on the market. In "One or Two Index Items" Whitman explains that the contents of Specimen Days & Collect consist mostly of "memoranda already existing" (Complete 927). He also explains that he was hurried by the printer to rush the volume into print. On the surface the result seems to be that Whitman's Collect is a strange assortment of pieces with no apparent purpose but to meet the needs of the printer.

One should bear in mind, however, that Collect was published with Specimen Days, and the latter seems to be purposeful as autobiography, especially the Civil War section. As reminiscence Collect also has great value, and that Whitman placed Democratic Vistas first was no accident. Democratic Vistas embodies most, if not all, of Whitman's major themes—including his emphasis upon the modern and his ideas on personality (Personalism) and the relation of the person to nature, to the state, and to some higher spiritual entity, i.e., the person as both body and soul. That he considered the European personality as a continuation of feudalism is clear, and that he hoped to cultivate a new democratic personality in America is even clearer. But one must ponder the meaning of the title Collect. The title can be dismissed as merely referring to a collection of pieces selected at random, or it can be viewed as having religious significance. It could be that Whitman's title also refers to the brief prayer coming just before the epistle in the communion service in many Western churches as well as in morning and evening prayers in Anglican churches. Why else would Whitman place "Origins of Attempted Secession" next, in the very first sentence of which he writes, "I consider the war of attempted secession, 1860–65, not as a struggle of two distinct and separate peoples, but a conflict (often happening, and very fierce) between the passions and paradoxes of one and the same identity—perhaps the only terms on which that identity could really become fused, homogenous and lasting" (Complete 994)?

And why would he follow "Origins of Attempted Secession" with the Preface to As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free (1872)? In the new union of states Whitman sees anew the possibility of a genuinely democratic nation, but his yearning neither begins nor ends with politics. As in "Starting from Paumanok" (1860) he sees the interconnectedness of love, democracy, and religion, and that he does may explain his misgivings about the future of democracy as well as his own future as America's bard. Collect, particularly the second section, "Notes Left Over," is full of doubts and misgivings. The best treatment of this subject is to be found in chapter 12 of Betsy Erkkila's Whitman the Political Poet. John Snyder also treats the subject of doubts and misgivings under what he calls "Whitman's new version of a persistent theme, the tragedy of time and space" (164), and in doing so he refers the reader to "Origins of Attempted Secession," "Poetry To-day in America—Shakspere—the Future," and "Death of Abraham Lincoln." Collect, writes Snyder, is notable because of its "important statements about the tragic absoluteness of the Civil War and Lincoln's death" (246). As has been generally recognized, Whitman's major work after the Civil War was written in prose, and Collect, like Specimen Days, stands as a companion piece to Leaves of Grass. After the Civil War, Whitman watched as his dream of a Jeffersonian America gave way to the social reality of corrupt government and a capitalistic enterprise which divided people into social and economic classes reminiscent of European feudalism of the Middle Ages, and this bothered him. For clear evidence that such was the case one should read in "Notes Left Over" such essays as "The Tramp and Strike Questions," "Democracy in the New World," "Foundation Stages—Then Others," "Who Gets the Plunder?," and "Our Real Culmination."

In his Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography Joel Myerson did Whitman enthusiasts of all kinds a great service by supplying a transcription of Whitman's Specimen Days & Collect. The transcription makes clear that Collect includes three sections. The first consists of 10 titles, some of which are speeches and the last of which consists of two letters. The second section consists of 21 notes under the title of "Notes Left Over." And the third is an appendix entitled "Pieces in Early Youth 1834–'42," consisting of 14 selections of early prose and poetry which have generally been ignored. When Justin Kaplan selected the contents of Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, he included all three sections in order but placed only the first under the title Collect, and when Floyd Stovall edited the second volume of Prose Works 1892, he excluded the appendix.

That little has been made of Whitman's Collect is no surprise, especially because of its being rushed into print. The fact remains, however, that Whitman chose these pieces as well as those in Specimen Days, and if either work seems disjointed, the reader should not overlook a technique Whitman relied on in writing and organizing his poems, i.e., symphonic treatment of theme. Nor should the reader overlook the oft-repeated adage that Whitman must be read whole—that a part will not suffice, will not stand for the whole. The pieces in Collect can best be explained as memories of a paralyzed man looking back while at the same time contemplating death.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Myerson, Joel. Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.

Snyder, John. The Dear Love of Man: Tragic and Lyric Communion in Walt Whitman. The Hague: Mouton, 1975.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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