Published in 1882, here is a choice collection of Whitman's uniquely revealing impressions of the people, places, and events of his time, principally ...Show synopsisPublished in 1882, here is a choice collection of Whitman's uniquely revealing impressions of the people, places, and events of his time, principally the Civil War era and its aftermath.Hide synopsis
Published in 1882, Specimen Days is of interest to the contemporary reader mainly for Walt Whitman's journal entries of his hospital experiences tending to soldiers in Washington during the Civil War. What is striking is the poet's spare, telegraphic style, making use of fragments, omitting the "I," almost as though the scene takes precedent over the seer, who becomes an empathetic spirit hovering over the war's horror, yet reducing it to human scale. And what Whitman sees is terrible: a hill of severed limbs, the prisoners, those left lying on the battlefield for days, a body sloping downward, blood rushing to his head. Despite a staunch Unionist, the poet transcends the conflict between the States, between the industrial North and agrarian South, between slaveholders and abolitionists. He finds "good secesh's" among the enemy, and thus humanizes them, including one who treats and feeds a Union soldier. One is reminded again of Whitman's tenderness in his observation of a rebel soldier who dies in a ward adjacent to his Union brother. Surely Walter Benjamin is right that history is told from the perspective of the victor. But the great poet sees not only numerous acts of grace and kindness, but the trials that test character, the "animality" and lawlessness, the violations of the human committed by the common soldier. And he claims that the "real war"--its psychic, emotional and economic toll--may never be documented in books. Here is the darkening of Whitman's democratic vision, but the good gray poet does capture glimpses of that awful conflict exactly in words.
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