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The Great American Poet

In 1882, when Walt Whitman finally put into one untidy package, Specimen Days and Collect,* reminiscences of his youth, his various “memoranda” of the Civil War, his travel diaries and “nature notes” after the war, he was almost at the point of becoming that mythic figure, the universal poet, that he had celebrated in his own poems. In these last years of his life he had become strangely important to writers in England otherwise so different a Gosse, Tennyson, Hopkins. At home though his reputation in respectable literary circles was still bad, he was becoming a cause to all sorts of lonely American iconoclasts. Then, after his death in 1892, Whitman was gradually to be seen as the first truly comprehensive writer America had produced, the first whose imaginative interest concretely included the different peoples in the world. Before Emily Dickinson was recognized as an original poet and Melville as a great myth-maker Whitman was valued abroad as the American writer who had somehow brought his country into world literature—the poet of a “democracy” not limited to Americans. During the 1914-1918 war, fallen French and German writers alike were found in the trenches with Whitman’s poems in their uniforms.

This importance to a future concerned (whether through socialism or the early twentieth-century religion of art) with the idea of a world community, this legend of himself as a political-philosophical poet and incarnation of what might yet be everybody’s “New World”—this Whitman had foretold in his poetry. Future “greatness” of an almost sublime kind, resting on the idea of redemption through the poet, had been a recurrent motif of Whitman’s poetry. He had celebrated himself as a poet by identifying himself with the easy transcendentalist afflatus of the “genius of these states”—and, by extension, with every kind of creative leadership conceivable to the stormy literary prophets, entrepreneurs, and nation-builders of the nineteenth century.

In 1882, however, Whitman had little tangible reason to expect so much of the future. He was able to make a characteristically uneven, idiosyncratic, but finally remarkable self-revelation out of Specimen Days largely on the strength of his experiences as a visitor to Washington hospitals during the Civil War, and for this he had to use his old newspaper articles and his already published Memoranda During the Civil War (1875). Whitman introduced these essential war experiences—the heart of the book—with reminiscences of his early life in order to bind future biographers to this self-portrait.

Thanks not least to his famous “magnetism”—he was already becoming one of the most photographed men of the nineteenth century—he was betting on the future (for some time he had not had much but the future). He was, at sixty-three, still unread as well as infamous. He was very poor, partially paralyzed, more or less immobilized by the stroke he had suffered after the Civil War, and which he sometimes attributed to his self-sacrificial hospital visits. He was living in the Camden house of his brother George, and was full of concern for him and for other members of his immediate family. Whitman was always in close touch with his mother, brothers, their wives, his sister. They depended on him for handouts and steadfastness; the Whitmans had a sickly history of mental illness and of public brawling over money.

Whitman eked out his own precarious existence by gifts from distinguished admirers. (Mark Twain among others found it easier to help buy the paralyzed old man a horse and buggy than to praise Leaves of Grass). There were occasional sums from the brave (and always different) publishers who would risk a new edition of Leaves of Grass. The Secretary of the Interior himself had discharged Whitman from his clerkship in the department when he had found Leaves of Grass in Whitman’s desk; in 1874 Whitman had been discharged from another clerkship, in the Attorney General’s office, which he had held by employing a substitute. In the same year that he put out Specimen Days, James Osgood of Boston, who had brought out the eighth edition of Leaves of Grass, found himself threatened with prosecution by the Society for the Suppression of Vice and abandoned publication.

Another publisher, in Philadelphia, was to go ahead with the next edition of Leaves, and in his own foraging, dependent, seductive kind of way Whitman was able during America’s Iron Age to carry on from day to day. But the immediate circumstances of this disabled and isolated old man in Camden, who looked so much older than his years, were in extreme contrast to the poet’s ambition to create a last monument to himself in Specimen Days.

Walt Whitman” had been as great a creation in 1855 as Leaves of Grass. Nothing so proves Whitman’s genius as the fact that he was able to turn into this persona and to make it stick. The poet was to become as important to his readers as his book. From the moment that the “real” Whitman (the hack journalist and unsuccessful editor who had failed at every occupation and probably felt threatened by the mental disturbance marked in his family) was able to create a wholly new existence for himself in and through Leaves of Grass, Whitman became one of those “heroes” and “master builders,” like Carlyle, Balzac, and Ibsen, who proclaim the scope of the nineteenth century.

Whitman the poet had the vision of the whole, the historic “scheme,” the national and nationalizing mythos that one associates with Lincoln, Mazzini, Dostoevsky. This poet of the “modern” (in personal sensation) and of the “future” (as a new sympathy between different races and peoples) actually helped to supply, through all his writings on the Civil War, the rationale for the huge continental power that emerged from the North’s victory. The poet of “comradeship,” of “manly love,” of “adhesiveness,” was just now, in 1882, to become as much the bard of blood and soil as Carlyle. Carlyle sneered that Whitman thought he was a big poet because he came from a big country, but Carlyle went on to idolize concentrated Prussian Macht. Whitman’s America would prove ultimately more powerful and more complex—especially to Walt Whitman.

The Whitman who had created a new self in 1855 was now, with Specimen Days, to show what a really determined genius in the nineteenth century could do by way of an “autobiography.” If he wanted to create a genial, sweet old W.W. for his expected army of biographers, one reason is that he had perceptibly slowed up, had lost his fire, had dropped the fervently suggestive sexuality of his early poems. No doubt he meant to show that he could do something good in the slower, more ruminative style that came with age. But most of all he wanted, by exploiting his experiences in the Washington hospitals, to ennoble and advance his literary reputation by joining it to the drama of war and the “majesty” of the Union cause—by 1882 as sacred a theme as the Passion of Christ and, through Lincoln, often identified with it.

In our century writers have often made their literary fortunes from war. But Whitman is virtually the only important American writer of his day who made so much of the Civil War, who identified himself so directly with it. Emerson was harshly anti-South, from the sidelines. Thoreau and Hawthorne, who died during the war, disbelieved in the holy cause; Henry James could not fight because of the famous “dreadful hurt” he suffered putting out a fire; Howells was American consul in Venice; Mark Twain was to wax comic about his brief inglorious experience as a Confederate volunteer—and after the war became a professional Northerner at banquets of the G.A.R. Of Whitman’s literary peers, only Melville left a lasting record—in his privately published poems—of his concern with the war.

Melville’s Battle Pieces are strikingly unenthusiastic, nonpartisan, tragic, sorrowful; they are above the battle. Specimen Days, by contrast, shows Whitman always at the scene, in the streets and hospitals of wartime Washington, so intimate and involved an observer that he becomes the important presence he wanted to be—in the war-torn, often “seditious” capital, virtually a participant in the war, at least by his account. Specimen Days is thus one book about the Civil War by a first-rate writer of the time that reflects the national fervor of the North, especially as it came to a retrospective glow in the 1880s. But Whitman’s spasmodic, curious, fascinating book is most valuable as a record. It is distended, like almost everything else that Whitman wrote, but it is not a simply literary creation, like The Red Badge of Courage. It is part of the passion of the Civil War itself, of the madness of war, of the victory spirit and the national ego that were to shape the North as much as defeat shaped the South.

Whitman presciently related himself to the popular passion released by war, he gave himself to this passion as the greatest possible political cause, he understood popular opinion in a way that Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville would never have attempted to understand it. Emerson, who said, like any conventional New England clergyman, that the war was “holy,” could not express the war. Whitman was able to get so much out of the war, and to put so much into it, because he knew what the people were feeling. He was not solitary and detached like the Concord writers; not suspicious of the majority, like his fellow New Yorker Melville. Whitman’s visits to the hospitals, his actual “war service” in fact began when he went down to the Virginia front in December, 1862, to look for his brother, Captain George Washington Whitman, who had been declared missing.

Despite Whitman’s mysterious, still elusive personality, he genuinely felt close to the “common man,” and he was a notably accessible and sociable creature. He was always to get along better with omnibus drivers, workingmen, printers, “simple” soldiers (especially when they were wounded and open to his ministrations) than with the “genteel” literary class. Whitman, who in his newspaper days had been a radical Democrat, had the instinctive feeling for the Union as the “popular” cause that radicals felt in Europe as well as in America.

But by the time of the Civil War—and as a result of the war—Whitman’s politics had become the “nation.” One of the essential qualities of Specimen Days is Whitman’s libidinously powerful urge to associate himself with the great, growing, ever more powerful strength of the Union cause. Whitman’s characteristic lifelong urge to join, combine, to see life as movement, unity, totality, became during the Civil War a kind of actively loving association with the broad masses of the people and “their” war. In his cult of the Civil War, Whitman allies himself with a heroic and creative energy which was not limited to leaders, as it was for Carlyle and Bismarck, but which sees itself spreading out from saintly American leaders (like himself and Lincoln) to be justified, finally, in the mythical connection between these representative men of the people and the people.

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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    This essay is the Introduction to a new edition to be published by David R. Godine, Inc.

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