Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: [Review of Specimen Days and Collect]

Creator: unknown [unsigned in original]

Date: November 27, 1882

Publication information: The Mace: A Weekly Record of the Glasgow Parliamentary Debating Association 27 November 1882: 2-3.

Source: The original electronic text for this file was prepared for Walt Whitman, The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Kenneth M. Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and the transcription was completed by consulting a representation of the original (e.g., photocopy, microfilm copy). Following publication of that volume, Price received an updated transcription file from Cambridge University Press, and the Whitman Archive has used the final file from the publisher as the basis for the electronic text presented here.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00105

Contributors to digital file: Natalie O'Neal, Elizabeth Lorang, Vanessa Steinroetter, and Todd Stabley


"SPECIMEN DAYS AND COLLECT." By WALT WHITMAN. Philadelphia: Rees, Walsh, & Co. $2.

IN our issue for March 21st 1882, we drew attention to the then recently published English edition of Walt Whitman's volume of Poems, "Leaves of Grass." The writer of that notice felt bound to hail Whitman as the poet who beyond all others was imbued with, and gave expression to, the Modern Spirit. The chants in the "Leaves of Grass" convey, in a form as beautiful as it is original, the universal wonder and sympathy which fill the mind of a poet who cares not so much to speculate upon the mysterious future as "to loafe" and enjoy the more mysterious present. The problems of existence have a subordinate place in his regard: the fact of existence is the consummate object of his thoughts. Remarkable as are his poems for their originality, their strength, and their beauty, the volume of prose now before us exceeds them in each of these attributes. Not to many poets is given to be great prose writers. Probably Victor Hugo alone of all the writers in this century has achieved supreme excellence in both. We may incur the charge of exaggeration, especially from those whose sympathies in this matter we are not entitled to expect; but we are inclined to trust posterity to endorse the verdict, that Walt Whitman is one of the very greatest writers in prose and poetry which the nineteenth century has produced. The theory that genius is still inspired has new confirmation in his works. Isaiah and Jeremiah, in the "broadsheets" in which they rebuked their Jewish fellow- countrymen for the hollowness of their worship and for their social sins, were not more trenchant than this modern prophet, who denounces the shams of an age more civilized but probably more corrupt than theirs. "Is there," says Whitman, "a great moral and religious civilization—the only justification of a great material one? Confess that to severe eyes, using the moral microscope upon humanity, a sort of dry and flat Sahara appears, these cities, crowded with petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics. Confess that everywhere, in shop, street, church, theatre, bar-room, official chair, are pervading flippancy and vulgarity, low cunning, infidelity."

The first writings of Carlyle and Emerson were despised and rejected; and yet these very writings have had so profound an influence in forming the thought of our period, that it were impossible to imagine, as Whitman remarks, what it would have been without them. The mantle of Carlyle has in a sense fallen upon Whitman. Without Carlyle's historic sense, without his bitter personal irony, he has all Carlyle's contempt for humbug, all his withering scorn of the respectabilities, all his earnestness and enthusiasm for the true democracy. Less a man of books, more a man of men,—less a recluse, more a man of the world,—than either Carlyle or Emerson, he adds new point to their texts, and finds new sermons in them. Learned, Whitman certainly is—a man of vast reading, fulfilled more than most students with what is to be had from books. He is more. His immense pliability of intellect, his subtle power of fixing his gaze with intimate scrutiny, enable him to absorb suggestions from everything. He reads a man—the very spinal marrow of him—not as an anatomist or a psychologist, or a man of business or a tailor, but as they all would do. The separate, special individuality: that seizes Whitman's attention—and he has the man. Thus, he examines the individual, and through him the aggregate. Society, its foibles, its rottenness, is transparent to him, and he does not spare it. While he is one of the most powerful advocates of the rights of the democracy, he never ceases to urge the necessity of its making private and public virtue as much an aim as political power. With the grasp of a true seer, he never sighs for "the old days that are ended," but attempts to urge on a future richer than any past in strong men and women, "in crops of fine youths and majestic old persons." The means he purposes using, and advocating the use of, are not legislative—they are intellectual. "Of all this, and these lamentable conditions," he says, in continuation of [the] passage quoted above, "to breathe into them the breath recuperative of sane and heroic life, I say a new-founded literature, not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or to pander to what is called good taste, not only to amuse, pass away time, celebrate the beautiful, the refined, the past, or exhibit technical, rhythmic, or grammatical dexterity, but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men—and, perhaps the most precious of its results—achieving the entire redemption of women out of these incredible holds and webs of silliness, millinery and every kind of dyspeptic depletion, and thus ensuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race—a race of Perfect Mothers—is what is needed."

In "Democratic Vistas" he expounds his political philosophy more consecutively and eloquently than anywhere else:—

"The political history of the past may be summed up as having grown out of what underlies the words, order, safety, caste, and especially out of the need of some prompt deciding authority, and of cohesion at all cost. Leaping time, we come to the period within the memory of people now living, when, as from some lair where they had slumbered long, accumulating wrath, sprang up and are yet active (1790, and on even to the present, 1870), those noisy eructations, destructive iconoclasms, a fierce sense of wrongs, amid which moves the power [sic], well known in modern history, in the Old World, stain'd with much blood, and marked by savage reactionary clamors and demands. These bear mostly as on one inclosing point of need. For after the rest is said—after the many time-honor'd and really true things for subordination, experience, right of property, &c., have been listen'd to and acquiesced in—after the valuable and well-settled statement of our duties and relations in society is thoroughly conn'd over and exhausted—it remains to bring forward and modify everything else with the idea of that Something a Man is, (last precious consolation of the drudging poor,) standing apart from all else, divine in his own right, and a woman in hers, sole and untouchable by any canons of authority, or any rule derived from precedent, state-safety, the acts of legislatures, or even from what is called religion, modesty, or art. The radiation of this truth is the key of the most significant doings of our immediately preceding three centuries, and has been the political genesis and life of America. Advancing visibly, it still more advances invisibly. Underneath the fluctuations of the expressions of society, as well as the movements of the politics of the leading nations of the world, we see steadily pressing ahead and strengthening itself, even in the midst of immense tendencies toward aggregation, this image of completeness in separatism, of individual personal dignity, of a single person, either male or female, characterized in the main, not from extrinsic acquirements or position, but in the pride of himself or herself alone; and, as an eventual conclusion and summing up (or else the entire scheme of things is aimless, a cheat, a crash), the simple idea that the last, best dependence is to be upon humanity itself, and its own inherent, normal, full-grown qualities, without any superstitious support whatever."

"The purpose of democracy—supplanting old belief in the necessary absoluteness of establish'd dynastic ruleship, temporal, ecclesiastical, and scholastic, as furnishing the only security against chaos, crime, and ignorance—is, through many transmigrations, and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures, to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly trained in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself, surrounding and providing for, not only his own personal control, but all his relations to other individuals, and to the state; and that, while other theories, as in the past histories of nations have proved wise enough, and indispensable perhaps for their conditions, this, as matters now stand in our civilized world, is the only scheme worth working from, as warranting results like those of Nature's laws, reliable, when once establish'd, to carry on themselves."

"Literature, strictly considered, has never recognized the People, and whatever may be said does not to-day. Speaking generally, the tendencies of literature, as hitherto pursued, have been to make mostly critical and querulous men. It seems as if, so far, there were some natural repugnance between a literary and professional life, and the rude rank spirit of democracies. There is in later literature, a treatment of benevolence, a charity business, rife enough it is true; but I know nothing more rare, even in this country, than a fit scientific estimate and reverent appreciation of the People—of their measureless wealth of latent power and capacity, their vast, artistic contrasts of lights and shades—with, in America, their entire reliability in emergencies, and a certain breadth of historic grandeur, of peace or war, far surpassing all the vaunted samples of book-heroes, or any haut ton coteries, in all the records of the world."

"To formulate beyond this present vagueness—to help, live, and put before us the species, or specimen of the species of the democratic ethnology of the future, is a work toward which the genius of our land, with peculiar encouragement, invites her well-wishers. Already certain limnings, more or less grotesque, more or less fading and watery, have appeared. We, too (repressing doubts and qualms), will try our hand. Attempting then, however crudely, a basic model or portrait of personality for general use for the manliness of the States—and doubtless that is most useful which is most simple and comprehensive for all, and toned low enough—we should prepare the canvas well beforehand. Parentage must consider itself in advance…To our model a clear-blooded, strong-fibered physique is indispensable; the questions of food, drink, air, exercise, assimilation, digestion, can never be intermitted. Out of these we decry a well-begotten self-hood—in youth fresh, ardent, emotional, aspiring, full of adventure; at maturity brave, perceptive, under control, neither too talkative nor too reticent, neither flippant nor somber; of the bodily figure the movements easy, the complexion showing the best blood, somewhat flushed, breast expanded, an erect attitude, a voice whose sound outvies music, eyes of calm and steady gaze, yet capable of flashing, and a general presence that holds its own in the company of the highest, for it is native personality, and that alone, that endows a man to stand before presidents or generals, or in any distinguished collection with aplomb, and not culture or any knowledge or intellect whatever."

A large part of the volume is occupied by Whitman's diary during the American War. Some of the sketches were written as letters to friends during the war and afterwards. All of them have the same nervous strength. They are, indeed, as he says, "a batch of convulsively written reminiscences." Why should they not? "They are but parts of the actual distraction, heat, smoke, and excitement of those times. The war itself, with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word convulsiveness." We can only give two of these sketches:—


"THREE YEARS SUMM'D UP.

"During those three years in hospital, camp, or field, I made over six hundred visits or tours, and went, as I estimate, counting all, among from eighty thousand to a hundred thousand of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need. These visits varied from an hour or two, to all day or night; for with dear or critical cases I generally watch'd all night. Sometimes I took up my quarters in the hospital, and slept or watch'd there several nights in succession. Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction, (with all their feverish excitements and physical deprivations and lamentable sights,) and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life."


"THE MILLION DEAD, TOO, SUMM'D UP.

"The dead in this war, there they lie, strewing the fields, and woods, and valleys, and battlefields of the South—Virginia, the Peninsula, Malvern Hill and Fair Oaks, the banks of the Chickahominy, the terraces of Fredericks- burgh, Antietam Bridge, the grisly ravines of Manassas, the bloody pro- menade of the Wilderness; the varieties of the strayed dead; Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest; Vicksburgh, Chattanooga, the trenches of Petersburgh; the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere; the crop reap'd by the mighty reapers, and typhoid, dysentery, inflammations, and blackest and loathsomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison- pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c. (not Dante's pictured hell, and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell'd those prisons.) The dead, the dead, the dead,—our dead—on South or North, ours all (all, all, all, finally dear to me), or East or West—Atlantic Coast or Mississippi Valley—somewhere they crawl'd to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of the hills— . . .thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners crumble to-day in Northern earth."


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