Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Specimen Days by Walt Whitman

Last month I went on a Walt Whitman walking tour that began in Fort Greene Park and proceeded to 99 Ryerson Street, the only surviving building of the dozen or so where Whitman lived at various times in Brooklyn. (The frame building, wedged into a row of similar houses, is one story higher now than when it was built, and is covered in yellow siding.) Greg Trupiano, who led the tour, spoke highly of Whitman’s memoir Specimen Days, so I read it later in my Library of America Whitman, along with the original edition of Leaves of Grass. Specimen Days is a hodgepodge, but with interesting bits. It begins with reminiscences of growing up on Long Island, continues with an account of the wounded soldiers Whitman visited during the Civil War (some of the best material in the book), moves on to nature writing from then-bucolic Camden, New Jersey (maddening in its vague effusiveness if you compare it to the sharp-eyed observations of Thoreau), then concludes with thoughts on old age and some literary gossip, including visits to Emerson and Longfellow toward the end of their lives. Whitman had a nodding acquaintance with President Lincoln, and a brief item called “No Good Portrait of Lincoln” reflects on his face.
Probably the reader has seen physiognomies (often old farmers, sea-captains, and such) that, behind their homeliness, or even ugliness, held superior points so subtle, yet so palpable, making the real life of their faces almost as impossible to depict as a wild perfume or fruit-taste, or a passionate tone of the living voice — and such was Lincoln’s face, the peculiar color, the lines of it, the eyes, mouth, expression. Of technical beauty it had nothing — but to the eye of a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast and fascination. The current portraits are all failures — most of them caricatures.
On the same page is a description of the wasted prisoners just released from Andersonville and other Confederate POW camps. “The dead there are not to be pitied as much as some of the living that come from there — if they can be call’d living — many of them are mentally imbecile, and will never recuperate.”

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