Book Review

Specimen Days by Walt Whitman

The life and memories of Walt Whitman, focusing on war and nature.


I remember how I acquired almost every single book in my massive “to read” pile.

I know which have been there for most of a decade, which have been there a few days, those I found, those I bought, those that were new, those I was given as gifts, but most of all I remember the books I found in charming secondhand bookshops, which is my preferred way to acquire literature.

A good secondhand bookshop is dusty, is 80% perfectly alphabetised but has a few stacks of things in no discernible order. Good secondhand bookshops are not on main thoroughfares, feel like they haven’t been cleaned in decades and are staffed by someone who looks like they were probably born between the stacks, the business passing down through the generations like a hair colour or religious affiliation. The proprietor usually wears a cardigan and is unresponsive, curt, never younger than 55 and implies they’ve read every single volume on their premises.

The good secondhand bookseller has glasses in front of eyes that’ve been ruined by over-reading. The good secondhand bookseller looks like they sleep behind the desk, like books form their pillows, their blankets, their duvets, their bedtime companions.

The shop where I bought Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days was exactly this kind of bookshop, somewhere in the centre of Liverpool in the autumn of 2014. Disorganised but resplendent in a literary fecundity, stacks and towering piles of glorious literature. I bought four books, but I wanted more. This was after I had walked from Manchester to Liverpool, so I was physically tired and mentally energised. All the books I bought were weighty,  optimistic, serious. Specimen Days was not a disappointment.

Walt Whitman, Mr Leaves of Grass, Mr Breaking Bad Denouement Kickerofferer, was a 19th century American poet, interested in nature and humanity. This prose book was published in the 1880s, when Whitman was in his 60s and a successful and renowned poet. It is part memoir, part diary, part essay, part manifesto. The idea of Specimen Days is that the reader is presented with a series of vignettes that offer a specimen of life as Walt Whitman. This life, this collection of a remembered life, can roughly be split in half, with the first half of the book covering Whitman’s experience of the American Civil War, which he was too old too fight in. After the war ended, in a peaceful and huge land, Whitman travelled the country, visiting its natural wonders and many of its cities, reflecting with hippieish joy on what he sees: other people, geographic and organic splendour, and – unfashionable, now – the excitement of technological change.

The last book I read was a collection of essays by William Morris, an English artisan and thinker who, in the same decade as Whitman wrote/collated the notes that make up Specimen Days, was railing against industrialisation as an offence against the fabric of nature. Morris’ impassioned writings care about pollution and deskilled labour forces, they are pertinent and zeitgeisty now. (Further discussion here: Useful Work v. Useless Toil.) Whitman, however, loved the railways and the factories and the expansion of cities, the taming of wild country into arable land, he loved telegrams and communication and gas lighting and steamships and public transport; even though he loved the natural world, too, he saw the societal development of humanity as a positive accompaniment to it, as something constructive rather than destructive, and I think in part this demonstrates the perennial difference between the English and the American soul. The Yankeedoodlie soul is rooted in a sense of space, because there is more of it. There is more wild, more land, more area for urbanity to expand into. The towns and cities Whitman travelled through were not a threat to the forests and mountains he also enjoyed, because the idea of America’s wilds being swallowed up by its towns was laughable. Whitman felt no contradiction between his love of balanced nature and the expansion of American industry, because he didn’t feel there was one. In England, on this shitty, dirty, little island, space is a premium, and by the 1880s its urban centres were approaching squalor from all the dirt. Whitman mentions slums in New York, but in the context of a problem soon to be fixed, and one that will be helped by the nation increasing its wealth through commercialisation. Whitman is American, throughout: these ideas still hold sway in his nation, and it is no surprise he is held up as such an important figure in the country’s literary past.

Whitman writes at length about his experience doing voluntary work in military hospitals during the War of Succession, and this (for me) was the most engaging part of the text. He wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, and though he does describe doing some minor practical, medical, tasks, the main point of his work was emotional support.

The American Civil War had a huge human cost, and pre-car, travel across long distances was time consuming and often unaffordable. For many young men who’d been shipped across the country to fight, there was no one to speak to in the cavernous hospitals thrown up around Washington, and Whitman – who would’ve been about the same age as your average soldier’s dad – became the human connection people needed or wanted as they were slowly dying or slowly recovering. Many men were either illiterate or too injured to hold a pen, so writing letters was an easy way for him to help. Furnished with donations from wealthy people who didn’t have the time or inclination to travel nearer to the war zone, Whitman was able to distribute paper, biros (or whatever people wrote with in the 1860s) and stamps, as well as little cash donations or gifts of sweets, alcohol and tobacco. He wandered the rows of beds and made friends with the lonely, he engaged with scared, mortally wounded young men who were thousands of miles from home. He was a quasi father, brother, uncle, teacher, non-religious priest to them all, to anyone who needed it. Some people were lucky and had their friends and family at their bedside, but others were alone and got to chat with one of America’s greatest poets on a daily basis. Whitman helped the romantically inclined by writing love letters, which was obviously something he could do very well, one imagines with great sensuousness. Whitman was not a man shy of the body, of its weaknesses and its joys, and he talks about injuries, recounts battle tales he was told, origins of injuries, medical procedures etc. as a hugely engaged and passionately interested observer.

When I first began reading this section I rolled my internal eye – big, successful man visits hospitals to stoke his own ego and see some grisly wounds. However, he writes about these fallen soldiers without reference to himself, and the many, many emotional connections he made evidence the value of his work. These were young men, some still children to a modern eye, and they were alone and terrified. Whitman offered warmth and interest and a letter to your sweetheart written by a poet. He was doing good work, evidencing the importance of human connections for the unwell, the gift of emotional and intellectual engagement. Whitman makes it very clear in this section that he was a good man.

After the war ends and peace returns, Whitman becomes a bit of a wanderer, moving around the country with regularity, seeing what it has to offer, rambling naked, writing poems, staring at the stars and contemplating life and literature. The second half lacks the emotional heft of the war section, but as a mellow and engaging piece of nature writing it succeeds. Whitman sees beautiful things, delicate creatures and sublime mountain ranges and waterfalls. Rivers and lakes, farmland, cities, the expanding road and rail network as well as the developed steamship routes on rivers and the ocean. He explores and he reports, and he does it with wit and joy. In his early 50s, Whitman had a bad stroke that left him in paralysis for a couple of years, and I think it was the unexpected recovery from this that led to his reaffirmation of love of life and his urge to see and enjoy as much of his country as possible. He records his memories and collects this prose collection from notes and diaries and letters written all over the country and over the course of 20 plus years. It shows Whitman as a thoughtful and optimistic individual, keen to learn much and wary to ever stagnate, especially after fearing that he may never get to do many of the things he had always dreamed of doing.

Specimen Days is a fun book, though one could argue that in its composition it is more a collection of thoughts than a coherent whole. I disagree with this, though, and see instead a proto Beat novel, only one written when the body has aged beyond its appetites for intoxication and hot sexual rush. The Beats loved Whitman, and this makes more sense now I’ve read his prose than when I’d only encountered Leaves of Grass. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I picked this up when feeling intellectually vigorous in Liverpool. I’ll just remember to make sure I don’t leave it beside my toilet so no one realises I’m a major local drugs baron.

A pleasing read.

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