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All About Walt Whitman


WE have here Mr. Whitman's collected prose. His prose is better than his poetry. It is clean. It is sane. It is intelligible. It is often readable. Much of it is really interesting, because either of its autobiographical effect, its reminiscential quality, or its frank fresh mirroring of out-of-door life and sensation. The book is virile. In many places it has the smell of damp loam or of new-mown grass. It is honest and justifiable. It contains the prose work of its author's life, and shows him at his best all through. Its title, its title-page in the author's rugged autograph, its make-up, and its literary style are all characteristic; and the heliotype portrait, facing p. 122, is strikingly good. The contents are brief essays or sketches, mostly fragmentary, many of them dated as if they were leaves torn from a diary. The first and longest group, occupying 200 pages, is denominated "Specimen Days." Following these, under the heads of "Collect" and "Notes Left Over" come 150 or more pages of nearly similar material. The volume closes with a hundred pages of "Pieces in Early Youth," printed subordinately in fine type. The book is unobjectionable so far as we have noticed, and there is not a little that can be said in its favor.

Many readers will be interested at once in the opening pages for the details they furnish of Mr. Whitman's ancestry and life. He was born on Long Island, May 31, 1819; and grew up on its shores studying sea-fowl, fishes and fisher-men, wrecks, and nature generally in her wilder moods. As he writes, he tells us, the whole experience comes back to him:

the soothing rustle of the waves, and the saline smell—boyhood's times, the clam digging, barefoot and with trowsers roll'd up—the hay boat, and the chowder and fishing excursions; or, of later years, little voyages down and out New York bay, in the pilot boats.

From 1824 to 1828 Mr. Whitman's parents lived in Brooklyn. He remembers Lafayette's visit, and going to hear Elias Hicks1 preach in a ball-room on the Heights. He began life in earnest as an errand boy in a lawyer's office; subscribed to a circulating library; reveled in the Arabian Nights and Scott's novels and poems; and then went to work to learn the trade of a printer. When he was eighteen he was teaching school in Queens and Suffolk Counties, and "boarding round." Then was the time when it was his passion to sail the East River to and fro in the ferry boats, "often up in the pilot-houses;" where he could "get a full sweep, absorbing shows, accompaniments, surroundings." To this succeeded a passion for Broadway and its omnibuses, where he saw Andrew Jackson, Webster,2 Clay,3 Seward,4 Van Buren, Walker5 the filibuster, Kossuth,6 Fitz-Greene Halleck,7 Bryant, the Prince of Wales,8 Dickens, and a host of other celebrities—among them Cooper and Poe. One of his special reminiscences belonging to this time is this:

I once saw (it must have been about 1832, of a sharp bright January day) a bent, feeble, but stout-built very old man, bearded, swathed in rich furs, with a great ermine cap on his head, led and assisted, almost carried, down the steps of his high front stoop (a dozen friends and servants, emulous, carefully holding, guiding him) and then lifted and tuck'd in a gorgeous sleigh, envelop'd in other furs, for a ride…I remember the spirited, champing horses, the driver with his whip, and a fellow driver by his side, for extra prudence…It was John Jacob Astor.

In 1848-9 Mr. Whitman was editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; then he went South, and worked at journalism a little while in New Orleans; then up into the Northwest and so round to New York again; then took to housebuilding and journalism once more in Brooklyn; and in 1855 began to put his Leaves of Grass to press. He was then in his thirty-sixth year.

The next sixty pages of the book are devoted to reminiscences of the Civil War, gathered in the Union hospitals among the sick and wounded soldiers. Mr. Whitman did good service as nurse and attendant in those trying days, and relates scores of pathetic incidents of the familiar type in unconventional terms. There is a powerful picture of the effect at Washington of the first Battle of Bull Run. There are graphic descriptions of field and camp hospitals, of trains and boat-loads of wounded, of individual cases of suffering, heroism, and patience, of visits to "the front," of death scenes, of Mr. Lincoln as he appeared on horseback with his cavalry escort, and, finally, a few concluding paragraphs under the forcible heading "The real war will never get into the books."

Having finished with the War, Mr. Whitman enters upon a range of bucolic themes, and shows himself to us as a sort of muscular Thoreau, fond of out-of-doors, of farm lanes, brooks and springs, bumble-bees, birds, and so on. He invites us to "a July afternoon by the pond." He teaches us "the lesson of a tree." He gives us a handful of "autumn side-bits." He spends "a winter day on the beach." He wanders out in the "full-starr'd nights." He takes a sun-bath, in sheer nakedness, in a secluded dell, once a marl-pit, "now abandon'd, fill'd with bushes, trees, grass, a group of willows, a straggling bank, and a spring of delicious water running right through the middle of it, with two or three little cascades." Look at this sturdy child of Nature playing with his mother:

Hanging clothes on a rail near by, keeping old broadbrim straw on head, and easy shoes on feet, haven't I had a good time the last two hours! First with the stiff-elastic bristles rasping arms, breast, sides, till they turn'd scarlet—then partially bathing in the clear waters of the running brook—taking everything very leisurely, with many rests and pauses—stepping about barefooted every few minutes now and then in some neighboring black ooze, for unctuous mud- baths to my feet—a brief second and third rinsing in the crystal running waters—rubbing with the fragrant towel—slow negligent promenades on the turf up and down in the sun, varied with occasional rests…Somehow I seem'd to get identity with each and every thing around me, in its condition. Nature was naked, and I was also.

Mingled with rambles and rambling meditations such as these are fragments of wider observations—days on the Delaware, views and experiences in the South and the far West, notes on his visit to Boston a year or two since, and, among distinctively literary topics, paragraphs—they are hardly more than that—on Bryant, Emerson, Carlyle, and Longfellow. These finish the "Specimen Days."

The "Collect" which follows opens with a long political and sociologic essay on "Democratic Vistas." The several prefaces to Leaves of Grass, 1855, 1872, 1876, succeed; then the North American Review paper on "Poetry Today in America;" and finally a defense of Leaves of Grass from the charge of indecency, and a "lecture" on the death of Lincoln.

As to Mr. Whitman's prose it is obviously quite interchangeable with his poetry. Many pages of this book might be transferred to Leaves of Grass by simply a rearrangement of lines. Thus (p. 109):

Cold and sharp last night— Clear and not much wind— The full moon shining, and a fine spread of constellations  
 and little and big stars—
Sirius very bright, rising early, Preceded by many-orb'd Orion, glittering, vast, sworded,  
 and chasing with his dog.

Or again (p. 132):

It was a happy thought to build the Hudson river railroad  
 right along the shore.
The grade is already made by nature; You are sure of ventilation one side— And you are in nobody's way. I see, hear, the locomotives and cars, Rumbling, roaring, flaming, smoking, Constantly, away off there, night and day— Less than a mile distant, and in full view by day. I like both sight and sound. Express trains thunder and lighten along; Of freight trains, most of them very long, There cannot be less than a hundred a day.

If this is not excellent poetry, measured by the Whitman standard, we are greatly mistaken. But, seriously, in his prose Mr. Whitman shows us a pleasanter side of himself than we have hitherto known.

Specimen Days and Collect. By Walt Whitman. Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co. $2.00.


1. Elias Hicks (1748-1830) was an advocate of abolition and a liberal Quaker preacher. He became the head of one of the two factions of the first major schism within the Religious Society of Friends. [back]

2. Daniel Webster (1782-1852), the American orator and politician. [back]

3. Henry Clay (1777-1852) was an American statesman, congressman and senator, dubbed "The Great Pacificator" or "The Great Compromiser" for his skill in bringing others to agreement including his success in promoting the Missouri Compromise (1820). [back]

4. William Henry Seward (1801-1872) was a U.S. politician and an antislavery activist. He was also Secretary of State from 1861-1869. [back]

5. William Walker (1824-1860) was an American adventurer and soldier who attempted to conquer several Latin American countries. He was president of the Republic of Nicaragua from 1856-1857 and was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860. [back]

6. The political reformer Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894)led Hungary's struggle for independence from Austria. [back]

7. The American poet Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867) was known for both his satirical and romantic verse. [back]

8. Edward VII (Albert Edward) (1841-1910) was the Prince of Wales from 1841 until he became King of England in 1901. [back]

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