Specimen Days And Collect, by Walt Whitman
This book is a strange one. It is not a bad one by any means, and there are certainly some aspects of it that are reasonably pleasant and enjoyable to read, but it is still a strange book, and that is largely because it is a miscellaneous collection of works that has not been fully integrated into something unified and whole. Indeed, the author himself appears to have deliberately made this so out of convenience as well as out of a seeming lack of understanding in how to create a coherent narrative. There are certainly some aspects of this book that are dependent on the reader being familiar with Whitman’s life as a nurse in the Civil War and also aware of his poetry and the controversial nature (then and now) of that poetry. It is unlikely that this will be the first book of the author that anyone reads, and would not make very much sense if it was, because the author assumes the reader is familiar with the rough outline of his life and works and is simply filling in the gaps as it were with interesting and somewhat quirky thoughts and reflections. And if you care about Whitman enough that these thoughts and reflections and drafts of poems and speeches and other similar materials are interesting, then you will definitely find this book to be of interest.
This book is about 450 pages long and it is divided into two parts with other miscellaneous material added at the end. The first half of the book or so is made up of Specimen Days, the author’s attempt to answer a request to write his memoir. His memoir is a strange one, a mix of discussion of family history, his own civil war experiences, as well as a diary of a period the author had received and responded to the request for a memoir that included his reflections about the sights and sounds of where he lived and the travels he made during this time to the West. After that there is a collection that is called Collect, along with some notes left over and some interesting stories from the author’s youth that are interesting stories, including speeches, two prefaces to different editions of Leaves of Grass, and the author’s views of the writing of his 19th century contemporaries, which is at least intriguing material for someone who is fond of literary criticism.
As a reader, what I was struck by the most were a few aspects of the author’s writing. For one, he seems particularly attuned to creation, and this very visual, even impressionistic understanding of scenes of creation surely informs his poetic sense. It is also funny to see the author think of himself as an expert on various subjects, be it a prophet of unity between the United States and Canada in a free trade and political union, in seeing the possibilities of the West and viewing himself as an expert after one train trip there, as well as his supposed expertise about Abraham Lincoln and the wisdom of the commoner. Whitman certainly viewed himself and his views on poetry and politics highly, whether or not the reader is inclined to always agree is a different matter, and these writings reflect a strong desire on the author’s part to convey himself in a positive light and to provide enough materials for the reader to respect the complexity of his thought processes. It seems that even if this book is definitely strange, that a fair-minded reader will nevertheless see much to respect and appreciate here, in that the author has shown us the ligaments of his writing process, and there is something compelling about that.