Skip to main content

Whitman's New Book


The Prose Writings of the "Good Gray Poet."

A Twin Volume to "Leaves of Grass."

A Striking and Interesting Collection of a Lifetime.

Walt Whitman's new book, with the odd, but thoroughly characteristic and descriptive title, "Specimen Days and Collect," is a prose companion to "Leaves of Grass," being a complete collection of the author's prose writings, as the former comprises all his verse. It is a meaty, compact volume, and is more directly comprehensible to the understanding of the multitude than the greater and more famous work. And yet this is as much Whitman as his verse is, and the same characteristics pervade it: grand healthiness of tone, largeness of view, universal reach, and, at the same time, deliberate perception and sensitiveness, and identity with nature, indissoluble and knit through and through with its fabric. Had "Leaves of Grass" never been written this book alone would be enough to establish the author's fame as a great poet. In a personal letter Whitman writes:

It is a great jumble (as man himself is)—is an autobiography after its sort—(sort 'o synonymous with Montaigne, and Rousseau's 'Confessions', etc.)—is the gathering up and formulation and putting in identity of the wayside itemizings, memoranda and personal notes of 50 years under modern American conditions—a good deal helter-skelter, but, I am sure, with a certain sort of orbic compaction and oneness as the final result. It dwells long on the secession war, gives glimpses of that event's strange interiors, especially the army hospitals; in fact, makes the resuscitation and putting on record of the emotional aspect of the war of 1861-65 one of its principal features.

Indeed, too much stress cannot be laid upon this phase of the book. No history or description of the war that has yet been written probably gives such vivid and graphic pictures of its events—its heroism, its horror, its sadness, the pathetic tenderness of countless of its incidents, and, above all, its grand significance. For this reason it ought to be dear to every soldier. During the years from 1876 to the present date Whitman has been a partial paralytic. Very much of his days (and nights, also, it appears) he has spent in the open air down in the country in the woods and fields, and by a secluded little New Jersey river. His memoranda, on the spot, of these days and nights, fill a goodly portion of the volume. Then comes the Collect, embodying "Democratic Vistas," the noble prose preface to Leaves of Grass of the edition of 1855, and much other prose, together with a number of youthful efforts in prose and poetry, which, in a note, the author explains he would have preferred to have them quietly dropped in oblivion, but, to avoid the annoyance of their surreptitious issue, he has, with some qualms, tacked them on. The whole volume, in its arrangement, is pregnant with Whitman's personality, and it seems more a part of its author than paper and printers' ink usually do. It also exhibits, as far as possible for any public record, that most wonderful and intricate of processes, the working of a poet's mind, and affords an insight into the mysterious interior depths and rambling galleries and chambers of the cosmic sphere whose large and rugged exterior is clothed with the fresh beauty of leaves of grass.

The contents of the book take a wide range, as may be seen by the following samples: The old Whitman and Van Velsor Cemeteries…Paumanok (Long Island, N. Y.) and My Life on It as Child and Young Man…Printing Office—Old Brooklyn…Lafayette…Broadway Sights…My Passion for Ferries…Omnibus Jaunts and Drivers…Plays and Operas…Opening of the Secession War…Down at the Front…The Army Hospitals…Cases…Preparations for Visits…A New York Soldier…A Yankee Antique…Two Brothers, one South, one North…the Grand Review… New Themes Entered upon (1876-'80)…to the Spring and Brook…A July Afternoon by the Pond…Locusts and Katydids…Full Starr'd Nights…Mulleins…A Sun-Bath—Nakedness…Human and Heroic New York…Hours for the Soul…Delaware River—Days and Nights…Scenes on the Ferry…Begin a Long Jaunt West…Missouri, Kansas, Colorado…The Prairies, and an Undelivered Speech…Denver Impressions…The Spanish Peaks—Evening on the Plains…the Arkansas…The Silent General…the Women of the West…St. Louis…Edgar Poe's Significance…Loafing in the Woods…Jaunting through Canada…the Saguenay…Capes Eternity and Trinity…Carlyle from American Points of View…A Week in Boston…Collect…Democratic Vistas…Prefaces to "Leaves of Grass," l855, 1872, 1876…Poetry Today in America…Death of Abraham Lincoln…Stories and Sketches Written in Youth (1834-1842).

In "Specimen Days" there is a vein of playfulness, and a humor—if it may be called so—probably different from anything yet in literature. The following is an example of this quality, and it is also an excellent characterization of the book:


One time I thought of naming this collection "Cedar-Plums Like" (which I still fancy wouldn't have been a bad name, nor inappropriate.) A melange of loafing, looking, hobbying, sitting, traveling—a little thinking thrown in for salt but very little—not only summer but all seasons—not only days but nights—some literary meditations—books, authors examined, Carlyle, Poe, Emerson tried (always under my cedar tree, in the open air, and never in the library)—mostly the scenes everybody sees, but some of my own caprices, meditations, egotism—truly an open air and mainly summer formation—singly or in clusters—wild and free and somewhat acrid—indeed more like cedar plums than you might guess at first glance.

But do you know what they are? (To city man, or some sweet parlor lady, I now talk.) As you go along roads, or barrens, or across country, anywhere through these states, middle, eastern, western or southern, you will see, certain seasons of the year, the thick woody tufts of the cedar mottled with bunches of china-blue berries, about as big as fox grapes. But first a special word for the tree itself; everybody knows that the cedar is a healthy, cheap, democratic wood, streaked red and white—an evergreen—that it is not a cultivated tree—that it keeps away moths—that it grows inland or seaboard, all climates, hot or cold, any sort—in fact, rather prefers sand and bleak side spots content if the plough and fertilizer and the trimming axe will but keep away and let it alone. After a long rain, when everything looks bright, often have I stopt in my wood saunters, south or north, or far west, to take in its dusky green washed clean and sweet, and specked copiously with its fruit of clear, hardy blue. The wood of the cedar is of use—but what profit on earth are those sprigs of acrid plums? A question impossible to answer satisfactorily. True, some of the herb doctors give them for stomache affections, but the remedy is as bad as the disease. Then, in my rambles down in Camden county, I once found an old crazy woman gathering the clusters with zeal and joy. She showed, as I was told afterward, a sort of infatuation for them, and every year placed and kept profuse bunches high and low about her room. They had a strange charm about her uneasy head, and effected docility and peace. (She was harmless, and lived near by with her well-off married daughter.) Whether there is any connection between these bunches and being out of one's wits I cannot say, but I myself entertain a weakness for them. Indeed, I love the cedar, anyhow—its naked ruggedness, its just palpable odor (so different from the perfumer's best), its silence, its equable acceptance of winter's cold and summer's heat, of rain or drought, its shelter to me from those, at times, its associations (well, I never could explain why I love anybody or anything). The service I now specially owe to the cedar is, while I cast around for a name for my proposed collection, hesitating, puzzled—after rejecting a long, long string, I lift my eyes, and lo; the very term I want. At any rate, I go no further—I tire in the search. I take what some invisible kind spirit has put before me. Besides, who shall say there is not affinity enough between (at least the bundle of sticks that produced) many of these pieces or granulations and those blue berries? Their lusciousness growing wild—a certain aroma of nature I would so like to have in my pages—the thing soft whence they come—their content in being let alone—their stolid and deaf repugnance to answering questions (this latter the nearest, dearest trait affinity of all). Then, reader dear, in conclusion, as to the point of the name for the present collection, let us be satisfied to have a name—something to identify and bind it together, to concrete all its vegetable, mineral, personal memoranda, abrupt raids of criticism, crude gossip of philosophy, varied sands and clumps—without bothering ourselves because certain pages do not present themselves to you or me as coming under their own name with entire fitness or amiability. (It is a profound, vexatious, never-explicable matter—this of names. I have been exercised deeply about it my whole life.)

After all of which the name "Cedar-Plums Like" got its nose put out of joint; but I cannot afford to throw away what I pencil'd down the lane there, under the shelter of my old friend, one warm October noon. Besides, it wouldn't be civil to the cedar tree.

The parts that deal with the war have been emphasized as forming one of the most important phases of the work. Here is an incident from the author's war experience which gives a better glance into the secession contest than all the formal military reports and statistics of the period:


March 27, 1885. Sergt. Calvin F. Harlowe, company C. 29th Massachusetts, 3d brigade, 1st division, 9th corps—a mark'd sample of heroism and death (some may say bravado, but I say heroism, of grandest, oldest order)—in the late attack by the rebel troops, and temporary capture by them, of Fort Steadman, at night. The fort was surprised at dead of night. Suddenly awaken'd from their sleep, and rushing from their tents, Harlowe, with others, found himself in the hands of the secesh—they demanded his surrender—he answered: "Never while I live." (Of course it was useless. The others surrender'd; the odds were too great.) Again he was ask'd to yield, this time by a rebel captain. Though surrounded, and quite calm, he again refused, call'd sternly to his comrades to fight on, and himself attempted to do so. The rebel captain then shot him—but at the same instant he shot the captain. Both fell together mortally wounded. Harlowe died almost instantly. The rebels were driven out in a very short time. The body was buried next day, but soon taken up and sent home (Plymouth county, Mass.). Harlowe was only 22 years of age—was a tall, slim, dark-hair'd, blue-eyed young man—had come out originally with the 29th; and that is the way he met his death after four years' campaign. He was in the seven days' fight before Richmond, in second Bull Run, Antietam, first Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, Jackson, Wilderness, and the campaigns following-was as good a soldier as ever wore the blue, and every old officer in the regiment will bear that testimony. Though so young, and in a common rank, he had a spirit as resolute and brave as any hero for the books, ancient or modern; it was too great to say "I surrender"—and so he died. (When I think of such things, knowing them well, all the vast and complicated events of the war, on which history dwells and makes its volumes, fall aside, and for the moment at any rate I see nothing but young Calvin Harlowe’s figure in the night, disdaining to surrender.)


There are many scattered dashes of poetic and literary criticism, evidently negligent and impromptu. On one of the concluding pages, for instance, the following:

I tried to read a beautifully printed and scholarly volume on "the Theory of Poetry" received by mail this morning from England—but gave it up at last for a bad job. Here are some capricious pencillings that followed, as I find them in my notes.

In youth and maturity poems are charged with sunshine and varied pomp of the day, but as the soul more and more takes precedence (the sensuous still included), the dusk becomes the poet's atmosphere. I, too, have sought, and ever seek, the brilliant sun, and make my songs according. But, as I grow old, the half-lights of evening are far more to me.

The play of imagination, with the sensuous objects of nature for symbols, and faith—with love and pride as the unseen impetus and moving power of all, make up the curious chess game of a poem.

Common teachers or critics are always asking: "What does it mean?" Symphony of the fine musician, or sunset, or sea waves rolling up the beach—what do they mean? Undoubtedly, in the most subtle elusive sense, they mean something—as love does, and religion does, and the best poem—but who shall fathom and define those meanings? I do not intend this as a warrant for wildness and frantic escapades, but to justify the soul's frequent joy in what cannot be defined to the intellectual part or to calculation:

At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers near or far, of which we get only a few broken mummers. What is not gather'd is far more—perhaps the main thing.

Grandest poetic passages are only to be taken at free remove, as we sometimes look for stars at night, not by gazing directly toward them, but off one side.

(To a poetic student and friend.) I only seek to put you in rapport. Your own brain, heart, evolution, must not only understand the matter, but largely supply it.

His criticism on "Edgar Poe's Significance" is an example of the best critical powers, and shows a high moral judgment. He says "there is another shape of personality dearer far to the artist sense (which likes the play of strongest lights and shades), where the perfect character, the good, the heroic, although never attained, is never lost sight of, but, through failures, sorrows, temporary downfall, is return'd to again and again, and while often violated is passionately alluded to as long as mind, muscles, voice obey the power we call volition. This sort of personality we see more or less in Burns, Byron, Schiller and George Sand. But we do not see it in Edgar Poe.*** Almost without the first sign of moral principle or of the concrete or its heroisms, or the simpler affections of the heart, Poe's verses illustrate an intense faculty—for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, and an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a demoniac undertone behind every page, and, by final judgment, probably belong among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat." Again, he says: "By its popular poets the calibres of an age, the weak spots of its embankments, its subcurrents (often more significant than the biggest surface ones), are unerringly indicated. The lush and weird that have taken such extraordinary possession of 19th century verse-lovers, what mean they?"


Occasionally throughout the book, and as notable as any parts, are some of Whitman's special letters. Here, for example, is one which tells its own story.

CAMDEN, N. J., U. S. A., Dec. 20, 1881.

To ——————(Dresden, Saxony): Your letter asking definite endorsement to your translation of my "Leaves of Grass" into Russian is just received, and I hasten to answer it. Most warmly and willingly I consent to the translation, and wish a prayerful God speed to the enterprise.

You Russians and we Americans! Our countries so distant, so unlike at first glance—such a difference in social and political conditions, and our respective methods or moral and practical development the last 100 years and yet in certain features, and vastest ones, so resembling each other. The variety of stock elements and tongues, to be resolutely fused in a common identity and union at all hazards—the idea, perennial through the ages—that they both have their historic and divine mission—the fervent element of manly friendship throughout the whole people, surpass'd by no other races—the grand expanse of territorial limits and boundaries—the unform'd and nebulous state of many things, not yet permanently settled, but agreed on all hands to be the preparations of an infinitely greater future—the fact that both peoples have their independent and leading positions to hold, keep, and if necessary, fight for, against the rest of the world—the deathless aspirations at the inmost center of each great community, so vehement, so mysterious, so abysmic—are certainly features you Russians and we Americans possess in common.

As my dearest dream is for an internationality of poems and poets, binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy; as the purpose beneath the rest in my book is such hearty comradeship, for individuals to begin with, and for all the nations of the earth as a result—how happy I should be to get the healing and emotional contact of the great Russian peoples.

To whom, now and here, (addressing you for Russia and Russians, and empowering you, should you see fit, to print the present letter in your book, as a preface,) I waft affectionate salutation from these shores, in America's name.

W. W.


The following extract from a letter to a German friend gives a picture of the poet's condition at present:

May 31, '82. From today I enter upon my 64th year. The paralysis that first affected me nearly 10 years ago has since remain'd with varying course—seems to have settled quietly down, and will probably continue. I easily tire, am very clumsy, cannot walk far; but my spirits are first-rate. I go around in public almost every day—now and then take long trips, by railroad or boat, hundreds of miles—live largely in the open air—am sunburnt and stout, (weigh 190)—keep up my activity and interest in life, people, progress and the questions of the day. About two-thirds of the time I am quite comfortable. What mentality I ever had remains entirely unaffected; though physically, I am a half-paralytic, and likely to be so, long as I live. But the principal object of my life seems to have been accomplish'd—I have the most devoted and ardent of friends and affectionate relatives—and of enemies I really make no account.

It is understood that Whitman himself considers "Specimen Days" as the exponent and finish of his poetic work, "Leaves of Grass"; that each of the two volumes is indispensable, in his view, to the other, and that both together finally begin and illustrate his literary scheme in the new world. Talking lately, in a half-jocular vein, to a friend, he called them his Adam and Eve, sent out in "this garden, the world."

The book is issued in precisely the same style as "Leaves of Grass," with the same cloth binding, the same butterfly on the [illegible] and the same price. It contains a faithful likeness of Whitman, in out-door attire, and sitting watching a butterfly that has lit on his finger. Since "Leaves of Grass" was transferred to the Philadelphia house, four editions have been exhausted, and they are now on the fifth.

Back to top