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The Great American Poet

In our day, when the United States has so overwhelmingly extended the historic position it achieved after 1865, it seems natural for American writers to be opposed to the Big State and its superpower. Hawthorne and Thoreau were opposed to American bigness in 1861, and the fact that both died during the war is perhaps not unconnected to their horror of the war. But opposition to the Big State was not natural to Whitman. His passion for the Union reflected not only his intense faith in democracy at a time when the United States still represented the revolutionary principle to many European countries, but also his deepest feeling that his own rise from the city streets, his survival as a man, his future as a poet of “democracy,” were tied up with the great cause.

Whitman’s great gift as a writer was his ability to give an unmistakable vibration, a mysterious significance, to the most commonplace details. He came to this in his poetry by entering boldly into some primary free association with himself, transcribing himself with the greatest possible naturalness, in a fashion that awoke hidden psychic currents in his readers, made them feel the authenticity of their unconscious strivings. In his slovenly, lethargic, passive ruminations, Whitman attained a seemingly directionless but actually mystical bond to the homeliest things at his feet, to street scenes, to accidental impressions and fleeting sensations. He suggested an alliance with powers and forces greater than himself. He could make any of his transactions with the world seem representative, and so made himself to many readers their representative man. He was a kind of lightning conductor to things in the universe that, in the suffocatingly moral world of so many Americans in the nineteenth century, they were to get only through him. In this sense he really was the “lover” that he proclaimed himself—he started amazingly sympathetic relationships with abstractions, made them as real as popular feelings.

In Specimen Days he united himself to the Civil War, he illuminated the war as a striving organism with which even Nature was in sympathy. He made it a living cause by his capacity for turning the homeliest, commonest details of his daily life in the Washington hospitals into a vision of the unity of all things. One night, he says in his diary, he stood in the darkness and saw “shadowy columns moving through the night,” through deep mud, laden with their packs and weapons. As they “fil’d by,” Whitman suddenly felt that never before had he “realized the majesty and reality of the American people en masse.” No American writer now would say that, watching soldiers file by, he realized the majesty and reality of the American people en masse. But Whitman was writing from the battle front in his own country. The very survival of his country was at stake. Whitman felt that the Union soldiers, many of them volunteers, were by their sacrifices helping to create an “American people.”

Henry James, as a young reviewer in 1865, had condemned Drum Taps. By 1898 he finally came around to Whitman by way of his letters about the war. “The beauty of the natural is here, the beauty of the particular nature, the man’s own overflow in the deadly dry setting, the personal passion…. [A] thousand images of patient, homely American life, else undistinguishable, are what its queerness—however startling—happens to express.” Whitman’s instinct for “the beauty of the natural” is indeed the great key to Specimen Days. He had an amazing ability to suggest the “divinity” inherent in ordinary life lived in the midst of the great modern crowd. All things and persons as well as “days” are “specimens” to him—all instances are mysteriously expressive of more than themselves. So it is the passing moment, the rumor of battle, the march at night, a storm over the Capitol, frightened soldiers rushing away from Bull Run to flop down in the Washington streets, Lincoln on a summer morning riding back to the White House after sleeping at the Soldiers’ Home to escape the Washington heat—detail after detail—that Whitman loves to get down, confident that everything in this national drama will prove the mysterious sympathy of all things in the order of nature.

Again and again in Specimen Days Whitman reveals the eerie romantic faith—so strange to our generation—that “Nature” is not only part of the drama of war and expressive of martial energies but is sympathetic to man’s “purposes.” In most realistic writing about the war, the more beautiful the weather, the more it symbolizes irrelevance. But Whitman’s romantic symbolization of the weather during the Civil War brings home to us the deep, all-absorbing crisis that the war represents to him. He sees as many omens and portents as Caesar saw before his murder.

There are other features of Specimen Days that are far from being realistic. Whitman was a volunteer bringing small gifts and occasionally writing letters, but allowed the picture to stand of a “wound dresser” and Christlike presence. The wounded soldiers with whom he made special friends, and whom he sometimes kissed, do not talk to Whitman; they make patriotic orations at him. Whitman turned his homosexuality, or his motherliness, or whatever it was, into stilted bedside scenes of brave dying soldiers being watched over by a bearded saint. Often enough the wounded seem exactly alike; one can tell that, with just one or two exceptions, Whitman formed no deep personal relationships in the hospitals. But what is “new” and foretelling of certain twentieth-century descriptions of war is exactly this emphasis on the “average.” Though Whitman intended it to mean representative of popular greatness, his rapid descriptions of so many faces in the crowded hospitals show his love of documenting the masses, a modern taste.

Equally so is the utterly spontaneous reporting sur le vif, the prose rhythms with which Whitman captures the headlong dash of events. This is the literature not of “realism,” as Stephen Crane was to invent it for The Red Badge of Courage, but of experience. It is just intensely personal reporting. As Richard Chase said, Whitman’s artistic credo is in the boast from Song of Myself: “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.” But this time Whitman really was there. In Winslow Homer’s sketches from the field for Harper’s Weekly one is always charmed by the immediacy. All his life Whitman had been saying, or trying to say, “I have been everywhere.” Now he could glorify his having been in Washington when it counted. And it is this warmth of the moment, his pleasure in being on the spot, that gives the war sections their old-fashioned humanity. One always seems to see Whitman writing the diary; the observer is always in sight, and you know all he is feeling.

Of course, we may suspect today that Whitman made too much of his hospital visits, that he was an interloper even by the relatively primitive hospital standards of the time. The highly organized Sanitary Commission, which Whitman disdains as coldly impersonal, repellent to his favorites, did in fact finally establish fundamental principles of modern hospital organization. We know now that the Sanitary Commission inaugurated bureaucratic controls important to government and business after the war. But no professional aide of the Sanitary Commission would have lingered in the hospitals as Whitman did—would have captured so unforgettably what Wilfred Owen would call “the pity of war.” It was because Whitman was already an anachronism that he was able to describe in close detail, near to the facts, scenes of individual suffering that would never again matter so much to a writer. But if we compare Whitman in the Washington hospitals with “Walt Whitman” the God-like seer of the poems, we can see how Specimen Days moves us from the archaic America before the Civil War to our own.

In Whitman’s account of war, the sense of numbers is fundamental. The overcrowded hospital wards where so many boys are dying in agony, the crowds in the Washington streets, the Grand Army of the Republic in victory finally parading down Pennsylvania Avenue for two full days—all this has suddenly filled up the old bare, provincial American scene. We are on the threshold of the modern mass world, where people have become as numerous as leaves of grass and are as indistinguishable and ignorable. But Whitman ignores nothing and nobody; he is no cold “realist.” The Civil War, it is true, was the first great modern war of mass armies and mass killing. For Whitman, the common soldier, the patiently suffering American is more a hero than Jeb Stuart was to the South. The wounded are faithfully itemized, with Whitman’s strange loving passion for the soldier as archetype. But as we know from his greatest poems, death was of supreme mystical significance to Whitman. When he writes of “the million dead summ’d up,” his belief in sacrifice, in death as fulfillment of “Nature,” wins over his horror at so many corpses—

The dead in this war—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys of the South—Virginia, the Peninsula, Malvern Hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chicahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the variety of the strayed dead…the dead, the dead, the dead, our dead—or South or North, ours all (all, all, all, finally dear to me)—or East or West—Atlantic coast or Mississippi Valley—somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills…the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat or ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw….

So the million dead prepared the way, by their “sacrifice,” for Lincoln the Christ whom he celebrated in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The connection of the Civil War with the idea of sacrifice is overwhelming in Specimen Days. By extension Whitman includes the sacrifice of his own health. But we cannot mind this, for the theme of sacrifice is fundamental to Whitman’s “national” idea of a people’s war. Whitman’s honest sense of his own comparative insignificance, his attempt at the same time to express the willing sacrifice of so many “unknown, forgotten” men, lifts his favorite theme of man’s democratic destiny—One’s self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse—to a new height of shared emotion.

In the “nature notes” that he wrote up when he became paralyzed after the war, we see Whitman “restoring” himself through Nature. These lovely minor pastorals show Whitman communing with himself and observing Nature as a benevolent presence very friendly to himself. “Nature” is still “Nature” at Timber Creek in the Jersey woods; no pollution. The picture of Whitman in the woods, doggedly trying to brush his failing flesh back to life, does not have the excitement of Walden or “Song of Myself,” but it is altogether charming as an old man’s last idyl. On the whole, Whitman still finds himself as pleasing as he does Nature. There are little set pieces in the book whose titles are already landscapes—“Cedar Apples,” “Summer Sights and Indolences,” “Sundown Perfume,” “Quail Notes,” “The Hermit Thrush,” “A Sun-Bath,” “Nakedness.” These sketches are only “notes,” but the quick brush stroke is already a picture:

As I journey’d today in a light wagon ten or twelve miles through the country, nothing pleased me more, in their homely beauty and novelty (I had either never seen the little things to such advantage, or had never noticed them before) than that peculiar fruit, with its profuse clear-yellow dangles of inch-long silk or yarn, in boundless profusion spotting the dark-green cedar bushes—contrasting well with their bronze tufts—the flossy shreds covering the knobs all over, like a shock of wild hair on elfin pates.

The only modern writer I can think of who wrote with this same quick descriptive response to objects in nature is D. H. Lawrence. As with Lawrence, writing about nature seems as good to Whitman as breathing; you can even say of many sketches in Specimen Days that he breathes by writing them. But unlike Lawrence, who was always imperiously direct, Whitman often wanders back into unformed thoughts. He suffers from that strange inarticulateness at times which Howells, as a young critic, thought was inherent in the nature of Whitman’s affinity with music. Yet since Whitman, even when he nodded, was a wholly original writer, he could often, despite his strange lethargies and divagations, find the idiosyncratically right word and phrase that was his essential strength—the symbol of his wholly personal way of seeing. His span of attention in these notes is short but delightful. What Whitman always did best was to make the reader partake of his homely, mysteriously effective creative process. Specimen Days gives us contact with his mind at its source.

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