Specimen Days Essay - Critical Essays

Walt Whitman

Critical Evaluation

For the most part, SPECIMEN DAYS lacks the somewhat rambling style of DEMOCRATIC VISTAS. For this reason it is easier to read than most of Whitman’s prose. Composed primarily of a loosely kept diary, the work is a series of the poet’s observations about his youth, the war years, and the last period of his life spent in Camden, New Jersey. Aside from containing some of the few examples of Whitman’s beliefs stated clearly and laconically, it is also a worthy historical account of one facet of the war years, with occasional portraits of important political and literary figures of the time. But the most obvious value of the essay is in the portrait of Whitman himself. While it is by no means a complete account of all the events in the poet’s life, it does give a vivid picture of his background, some moving reports of his reactions to the war, and his real enjoyment of nature during his later years.

The organization of SPECIMEN DAYS is purely chronological. At his home Whitman had a collection of papers he had written during his career, and at a publisher’s request he went there to “reel out diary-scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another, into print-pages, and let the melange’s lackings and wants of connection take care of themselves.” Whitman stated that if his book accomplished nothing more, he would at least “send out the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed.”

In spite of this lack of thematic continuity, the essay divides itself into three distinct subjects: the first pages deal with his early years and are composed from a letter which was sent to a friend who had requested the information; the middle and most lengthy section deals with Whitman’s stay in Washington during the war; and the final selections concern his observations of nature made during the years of his paralysis.

The poet begins his story by saying that he was born at West Hills, Long Island, on May 31, 1819. The son of a farmer-carpenter, he spent a pleasant childhood in what was then a rural setting where manual labor was the principal activity. The family lived close enough to the city for Whitman to be influenced by both rural and city life. When he was still quite young, the family moved to Brooklyn, where his father entered the building trade. At the age of eleven Whitman left school. At the time his interest in reading, particularly Sir Walter Scott’s novels and other romances, was intense.

The poet’s first job was as an office boy. Then, at the age of thirteen, he became an apprentice for the Long Island Patriot, owned by Samuel Clements, and later he worked for the Long Island Star. At eighteen he taught at county schools as an itinerant teacher in Queen’s and Suffolk counties. At the same time he contributed to the local newspapers. During the years which followed he turned again to the printing business, enjoying all the while the benefits of living in the cultural center of the nation. He also acquired an interest in the theater and the opera.

When he was twenty-seven, Whitman became editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, but left this position two years later. He then traveled with his brother Jeff to New Orleans, where for only three months he was editor of the Crescent. After touring the country for a time he settled once more in his native Brooklyn. There he helped to build houses while living with his parents. Also, during this period he was busy writing the first edition of LEAVES OF GRASS, which appeared in print in 1855. From this time until the wounding of his brother in the Civil War in 1862, he spent most of his spare time doing newspaper work...

(The entire section is 1509 words.)