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Review of Specimen Days and Collect

SPECIMEN DAYS AND COLLECT, by Walt Whitman. Published by Rees, Welsh & Co. Received from David McKay.

This book is in two parts; the first part is devoted principally to the author's experience in Washington, during the War, visiting the sick and wounded. His kindliness of heart and broad humanity are manifested on every page, and one cannot but regret that he did not have the strength, or the inclination, or both, to make a continuous narration of it, instead of the sketchy little notes with which he has furnished us. Besides these War episodes, he gives us an insight into his love of Nature, and the keen delight he experiences in the open air, in the sun, in the oak, in the full starr'd nights, the common earth—the soil and the skies. Indeed, these short sketches contain material that would make the fortune of a commonwealth of rhyme-makers. He also gives us his impressions of Carlyle and Emerson, of Longfellow, Whittier, and Bryant, impressions evidently softened by age, for his present opinion of Carlyle is not what, we would have looked for in Walt Whitman, and one not at all consistent with the spirit of his "Democratic Vistas" in the "Collect."

He gives us, likewise, an appreciative critique on Jean Francois Millets's "Sower," "the Diggers," "the Angelus" and "Field-People Reposing." A view of these pictures certainly has the effect of making the blood boil, and the heart fire-up with much the same sort of flame as burned in the hearts of the Jacquerie. One could have foretold the French Revolution from these pictures, had they been painted in time.

He also reveals to us his departure from his previous customs, as depicted in the horrible juvenilities in the back of the book. It is a pity the book was disfigured with them. He gives us therein a frightful picture of intemperance, much as a ten-year old Cadet would have done. But on page 188, he owns to draining "big, brimming, fill'd-up champagne-glasses ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ to the last drop."

The second part, or "Collect," is much the more elaborate portion of the work. In "Democratic Vistas" he gives a thoughtful review of our country, as to its literature, and its political life. Though the acknowledged poet of the "People of these States," he does not take a rose-colored view of them, by any means, politically speaking. He says: "Never was there more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in these United States. ∗ ∗ ∗ The underlying principles of these States are not honestly believed in. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the literateurs is something to make fun of. Conversation is a mass of badinage. ∗ ∗ ∗ The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and department, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood and mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business) the one sole object is by any means pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician's serpent, remaining to-day, sole master of the field. The best class we show, is but a mob of fashionably dressed speculators and vulgarians."

Yet of the people he does not despair. Their heroism in the camp, in the battle, and in the hospitals, has convinced him that the material for a great people is at hand. But they must be awakened. Reformers are needed, and though they speak rashly, eagerly, and often inconsiderately, their ill-balanced enthusiasm in the right direction is necessary to disturb the "inertness and fossilism of human institutions." This direct exposition of the lamentable defects in our body-politic, is timely, just when the leaven of improvement is beginning to work,—with what result, time only will show. Whether our present system is able to evolve a better state from itself, or whether an entirely new, or at least, a greatly changed form will be necessary to accomplish the desired result, it is now impossible to tell. That our political future is at all doubtful we have no reason to suppose. Though we may go back for a time, though corporations and political bosses may hold our people in bondage for a while, the spirit of civilized communism and socialism is not far enough removed from the minds of our American laboring classes, but a revolution may be inaugurated at any moment. As Walt Whitman says, "practically, strikes are attempted revolutions, and the Revolutionary War, and the French Revolution were strikes."

Walt Whitman attacks, more particulary, our literature, and in fact, all literature. He finds Shakespeare and Scott the poets of the great lords—nowhere are there poets of the people. But it seems to us he fails to recognize at their true value, the poetry of the novelists. He dislikes romances, and does not give them any place. Yet Dickens is as clearly the poet of the people as Walt Whitman, himself. And Victor Hugo, in the French, and Auerbach, in the German. But his greatest grievance is that there is no American literature, as such. But he again is unjust in a measure. Of course, he has no humor, and can recognize no use in it. But Artemus Ward is as redolent of the American soil as Walt Whitman, and while he is not, in any sense, a champion of the people, but rather their satirist. Mark Twain, inferior, it is true, but yet American throughout, is thoroughly republican in thought, tendency and expression. So, also Bret Harte, inefficient and ultra-sentimental, and often weak and incomplete. But granted that we have no distinctive American literature, with the exception of Walt Whitman himself, it was six hundred years after the English nation was formed before Chaucer, the first of English national poets, appeared. And what a long interval elapsed before a great one followed him. And thus, while the nation was untrammeled by traditions and forms. We, who have not assimilated the numerous ingredients furnished us by foreign countries, are not yet even a nation—perhaps, have not even a stable government. We have inherited a rich literature, which we have imbibed in infancy, which is taught in our schools as the model of all that is desirable in thought and style. To strike out a vigorous Republican poem in a country that persecutes the Chinese, that stigmatizes one day the Jews, another the Catholics, and another day some other race or religion, would be almost a sarcasm. It is not a Republic where wealth purchases immunity for crime, where the sheriff furnishes desirable juries, and the prosecuting attorney takes care of the criminal. The administration of justice must be improved, to the end that the voice of the people will be heard—that the government, through its officers, will represent the will of the people. Then, and then only, will we become a nation with national characteristics—and not in the meantime, a colony of Great Britain, speaking the same language, singing the same songs, and generally remaining the unconsidered minor performers in the theatre of English literature.

But it takes time for all this, and we have reason to be proud that only eighty years after the sounding of the tocsin of American independence, we have already had our Chaucer—Walt Whitman.

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