Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Specimen Days [1882]
Author:
Hutchinson, George and David Drews
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Specimen Days first appeared in 1882 within a volume entitled Specimen Days & Collect, published by Rees Welsh and Company in Philadelphia. Composed in 1881 largely out of notes, sketches, and essays written at various stages of the poet's life from the Civil War on, it is the closest thing to a conventional autobiography Whitman ever published. 

The largest and arguably the most important work of Whitman's old age (except for the reordering of Leaves of Grass during the same period), the book deserves attention as more than a source of information or for its moving descriptions of the poet's experiences in the Civil War, which have in the past been the chief sources of its interest to scholars. The book attempts to link Whitman's life history to national and natural history while presenting itself as the casual reminiscence of a man approaching death. It therefore resembles what students of aging term "life review." 

The volume was provoked in part by a trip to Whitman's childhood haunts and the family graveyards on Long Island that the poet took with Richard Maurice Bucke in 1881, in connection with Bucke's aim to write his biography. The text is presented as a series of brief, titled fragments, almost like a scrapbook, and is divisible into five sections or "acts" framed by introductory and concluding remarks. The sections cover the author's genealogy and early life, the Civil War, Whitman's recuperation from a stroke during a few months spent on a farm near Philadelphia, a brief trip to Canada and then another trip west in 1879-1880, and finally the author's thoughts about a variety of earlier authors such as Emerson, Carlyle, and Poe. 

Many of the fragments that compose the book had been published previously in periodicals, and most of the Civil War section had formed a book entitled Memoranda During the War (1875-1876). By piecing the fragments together and bathing them in an informal tone of reminiscence, Whitman creates a casual mood that conveys authenticity yet veils the seriousness of his structure and the carefully constructed nature of his pose. The rhetorical effect is thus to make Whitman's prophetic interpretation of his life all the more convincing, because apparently unstudied and "natural." 

Throughout, Whitman emphasizes that his personal history has been shaped by geography and history, which in turn are the results of cosmic, natural processes. At the same time, he implies that he was in just the right places at the right moments to experience the epic transformations of the nineteenth century. The result is a kind of justification of his life course as the author accommodates himself to his physical debility and the approach of death—and strives to ensure his place in the continuum of American democratic development. 

Specimen Days presents the formation of a self through participation in communal and even ecological process; unlike most confessional autobiographies in the Western tradition, Whitman's emphasizes the dependence of individual identity upon community identity, and thus upon historical placement. Even in the early genealogical portion of the book (the conventional starting point for biographies of the day) the poet links his family experience to the public experience of the nation as a whole. Meditating on the succession of generations buried in the Whitman and Van Velsor cemeteries on Long Island, representing a lineage going back to the first European settlement of the area, he also describes the setting in nationalistic terms, drawing attention to a grove of old black walnuts, "the sons or grandsons, no doubt, of black-walnuts during or before 1776" (Specimen Days 6). 

Similarly, when narrating the key experiences of his early life, Whitman emphasizes such events as learning to set type under a man who remembered the American Revolution, being lifted up as a child and kissed by Lafayette a half century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and experiencing the growth of New York City—which for Whitman epitomizes the emergence of modern America. Throughout the book one finds such links between geography and historical epochs. Thus the Civil War memoranda dramatize how Whitman participated in the nation's terrifying rite of passage. At the same time, he refers to the conflict in metaphors of natural catastrophe. The will of "the people" for Union, for example, he describes as a stratum of bedrock "capable at any time of bursting all surface bonds, and breaking out like an earthquake" (25). The fatefulness of the war implies the fatefulness of his own life course at the defining moment for both the poet and the nation. Moreover, much of the Civil War section is composed of diary notes, thus forcing the reader's participation in the construction of the narrative. We are invited to discover the design supposedly immanent in Whitman's life history—a brilliant strategy not only for making readers experience the war as part of a common world continuous with the present but also for making us believe the poet's career has been written in the book of fate, that he was destined to be the bard of the nation at the turning point of its history. Whitman's assertions that Leaves of Grass "revolves around the Four Years' War" (Comprehensive 750) are connected with this self-justifying function. But they also reveal how the very process of composing Specimen Days was part of his own process of accommodating himself to a new "self"—that of the half-paralytic, made so, he liked to assert, by the blows the war experience delivered to his own body. 

Following the Civil War section, Whitman presents a series of meditative descriptions of the natural world written when he lived at the Stafford Farm on Timber Creek, in part attempting to recover from a paralytic stroke. Here we follow the change in the bodily rhythms of the poet as he puts himself in "rapport" with trees, water, and clear skies. He describes the elements of the natural world around him, but also his own physical immersion in that world, whether bathing in the stream or "wrestling" with trees in exercises he invented for physical therapy. Inasmuch as this section of the narrative begins in May 1876, as Linck Johnson has suggested, Whitman symbolically connects his own rejuvenation with that of the nation in the centennial celebrations. This explains a ten-year gap in the narrative between the end of the war and the centennial year. The decade 1865-1875 was very lonely and depressing for the poet, not easy to integrate into the story he is trying to construct of his life course and the nation's.

Finally Whitman emerges into the public world again, experiencing city life, sailing up the Hudson to John Burroughs's home, and then taking a trip to Denver. The notes on the trip west, when Whitman first crossed the Great Plains and saw the Rocky Mountains, balance the earlier notes concerning his youth in New York and suggest the poet's projected relationship to the next generation of American bards. The poet envisions the new American poets emerging from the geography of the trans-Mississippi West to produce a literature "altogether our own, without a trace or taste of Europe's soil, reminiscence, technical letter or spirit" (Specimen Days 219). The Western poets to come will realize the prophetic implications of Whitman's own life's work. 

This section also seeks to ground the chronological development of the nation in geographical features. The immensity of the mountains and rivers themselves match, for Whitman, the immensity of the democratic experiment; and what the Mediterranean was to early Europe the poet believes the Mississippi is to the new democratic epoch of the United States. This relationship between geography, geological scales of time, and human history further suggests the fit Whitman strives to make between interlocking personal, national, and cosmic cycles in his life story. 

Ultimately the narrative of Specimen Days returns us to Camden and meditations on intellectual or literary predecessors and contemporaries—Thomas Carlyle, Elias Hicks, Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, Whittier, and Bryant. Whitman stresses particularly the old age and death of these men, in addition to their contributions to the tradition with which he identifies. In this way he incorporates himself into a cultural continuum and at the same time models his own pose for his declining years. Moreover, he once again places individual identity amidst the process of nature. He asks, for example, whether Thomas Carlyle (one of Whitman's early models) does not remain "an identity still," though chemically dissolved, "perhaps now wafted in space among those stellar systems, which, suggestive and limitless as they are, merely edge more limitless, far more suggestive systems?" (253). Such meditations are, in part, a means of bolstering the faith of the "good gray poet" in the integrity of his own identity and in its immortality. 

Specimen Days is, then, a new form of autobiography shaped in part by new challenges to the aging self brought on by rapid modernization and swift transformations of society that have characterized the industrializing and post-industrial period. For all its emphasis on memory and continuity, it is a peculiarly "modern" book. 

The key to this deceptively informal and colloquial text may lie in what recent students of aging have to say about the uses of reminiscence in modern societies. Reminiscences, unlike histories, convey a rich sense of individual lives as components of larger social and historical processes; they create a complex identification with the world held in common with others both alive and dead, a deep sense of interconnectedness with other forms of being. Reflecting on Specimen Days, one comes to see how such interconnectedness is less a natural given than a creative achievement of self-making and of human desire.  

Bibliography 

Aarnes, William. "Withdrawal and Resumption: Whitman and Society in the Last Two Parts of Specimen Days." Studies in the American Renaissance. Ed. Joel Myerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982. 401-432. 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 

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

Hutchinson, George B. "Life Review and the Common World in Whitman's Specimen Days." South Atlantic Review 52 (1987): 3-23. 

Johnson, Linck C. "The Design of Walt Whitman's Specimen Days." Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 3-14. 

Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Specimen Days. By Walt Whitman. Ed. Lance Hidy. Boston: Godine, 1971. xix-xxiv. 

Price, Kenneth M. "Whitman on Other Writers: Controlled 'Graciousness' in Specimen Days." Emerson Society Quarterly 26 (1980): 79-87. 

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965. 


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