Sunday, September 27th, 2009 | Author:

All right, so. The Civil War. It’s a subject we Southerners know like the back of our hands, and sometimes I think I learned what the Confederate flag was just as early as the American one (if only because I saw so many floating around the backs of every truck that passed me by. I  know Lee; I know Grant.

Whitman’s role in the war strikes me as an interesting one.   He’s a brother, a civilian, a nursemaid, and a writer. To me (sappily enough) he’s also become a sort of a friend. I think it’s interesting how quickly Whitman’s mood fades; there is a singular set of jubilant entries, with such quotes as “The volcanic upheaval of the nation, after that firing on the flag at Charleston…will remain as the grandest and most encouraging spectacle yet vouchsafed in any age..” (I wonder if he regretted these words later?). Only two entries later, Whitman’s mood is defeated with the soldiers at Bull Run.

Whitman’s prose strikes me exactly like his poetry does. There are times when Whitman can’t stop listing, especially when things are at their worst. Whitman’s summation of the dead  is a frenzy similar to that of “Song of Myself.” Here we have the graves of “Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh” (800). It’s as if even with these (or rather, especially, since they have died for the cause), Whitman seeks to show these men united as a nation. Whitman’s language throughout “Speciman Days” is, as always, expansive, with most sentences lasting several lines and not fitting on the page. These are excepting the few worst days, such as “Down at the Front,” where Whitman’s length is cut short. He seems merely intent on focusing on the facts; he shows us “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands” (736), and that’s it. They’re in front of a cart. There’s no poetry in that, no “good manure” (85) or fear of the compost, and I’m dying to know what Whitman was thinking, or why he didn’t record that there . Perhaps it was too much for him. Then again, when Whitman sees the released Union prisoners later, his diction can’t can’t help but demonstrate horror; he calls them “monkey-looking corpses” (789). What was it about that day or that mood that silenced him? Surely the living dead would be more horrifying than the actual?

But I’m rambling at little, I think. Throughout this section of “Specimen Days,” we again get asides, but not in such an inclusive way as “Song of Myself.” Again, I see Whitman rushing to include important facts, especially in sections such as “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up.” So many of his asides here have to do with numbers, whether it be the breakdown of all the soldiers killed, or the number of soldier cemeteries now existing in the nation. It’s interesting that Whitman, normally so expansive and word-loving, uses numbers to literally “sum”  the men up; eventually, it becomes all that they are (for evidence, all you have to do is go look at the graves in the Confederate Cemetary just a couple minutes from here). But perhaps that’s the point that he’s getting at later, in “The Real War will Never get into the Books.” We forget the loving husband, and instead remember that he was one of “25,000 national solders kill’d in battle and never buried at all” (800). Perhaps Whitman was balancing the reality of his words, with the sterile factoids that he knew the war would become today.

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  1. Avatar of nataliesayth nataliesayth says:

    Specimen Days reminded me of one of the many reasons Whitman is so appropriate as a subject of study, performance, and discussion online: he’s virtually limitless.

    You say that you “see Whitman rushing to include important facts,” and I agree that he really does write with a sense of urgency. It’s as if he has some idea of how much in the world still needs to be accounted for in literature, in thought, in other forms of recognition . . . and he wants to wrestle as much as he can into the written word. That he has such a brilliant perception of how massive and intricate and overwhelming the world is, and he still does his best to connect us to realities we may not otherwise know is almost breath-taking. He really put an immeasurable amount of energy into sharing information.

    Imagine if Whitman had blogs and the entire Internet at his disposal.

  2. Avatar of cirvine1965 cirvine1965 says:

    Wow. “Monkey-looking corpses.” I agree with Natalie about how Whitman seems “limitless.” His portrayal is of the “real war” because he has the ability to look at it from every angle. His changing moods are genuine. I mean, don’t you change your mind every day? I know how he feels, switching from elation to disgust without missing a beat. His view of the war is a genuine one, and it’s lucky that we have an account by which to look back at that shows this human side. We Southerners are sometimes bombarded with our history. Whitman reminds us to look at each face carefully.

  3. Meghan:
    “Specimen Days” strikes me as the most personal narrative we have yet seen from Whitman. Despite the insertion of himself into his poetry, I think that “Specimen Days” (though I dare not say he abandons his cause to speak to and for the people), is the most direct window into Whitman’s own heart. The sense of urgency all three of you have mentioned, coupled with Whitman’s almost bipolar and occasionally seemingly unfinished description of his emotions really allow us to see how hard it must have been for him to write this. “Specimen Days” has really allowed me to see the “tender Whitman” Dr. Scanlon always refers to, not just due to his being a nurse and caregiver, but for the agony on and beneath the surface of this text. Whitman seems to cry out as he writes of a battle, “Then the camps of the wounded – O heavens, what scene is this? – is this indeed humanity – these butchers’ shambles?” (746). His desperation brought him down to earth for me and softened my heart against the man who sings so often of himself.

  4. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    Yes, Chels– this is the Whitman that I’ve find myself really living with this year. Meghan, your post has an excellent attention to language and form in these excerpts from Speciman Days, which are essentially the text he originally published as Memoranda During the War. Juxtaposed with those numbers and lists of states/cities/battles are the quiet, intimate descriptions of very specific men’s hair, eyes, wounds, deaths– you will see some of this in the letters we read next week also.

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