Walt Whitman’s Speciman Days

In Whitman:  A Study, east coast naturalist John Burroughs presented his friend Walt Whitman as the poet of democracy, primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, prophet.  The famous literary critic Harold Bloom goes even further, placing Whitman on par with Shakespeare and describing him as “the greatest artist his nation has brought forth” and “as close to an authentic American saint as we will ever know.”  I was thus very excited recently to come across Whitman’s memoir, Speciman Days, which would give me a chance to better understand the poet’s vision.

Speciman Days is not a conventional life story but rather a series of vignettes.  What I loved the most was how Whitman described the simple experience of being outdoors, which was for him a source of health, joy, and even ecstasy, and also the standard of beauty against which he judged art and literature.  In fact, the outdoors life was in his view critical for “the whole politics, sanity, religion, and art of the New World.”  Without a direct connection to nature, he warned, American democracy would “dwindle and pale.”

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised that I sympathize with this view.  But in modern America, the outdoors life is for the most part a thing of the past:  according to recent data, the average American today spends only 7% of their time outdoors.

Should we be worried?

American time indoors pie chart

Whitman was a strong believer in democracy:  “Our American superiority and vitality are in the bulk of our people,” he observed, “not in a gentry like the old world.”  Walking through the streets of Manhattan, he saw a strong and heroic quality in the crowd:  “alertness, generally fine physique, clear eyes that look straight at you, a singular combination of reticence and self-possession, with good nature and friendliness” — the same qualities he encountered in the wounded soldiers he tended during the Civil War.  He attributed these qualities to a natural lifestyle with people working in “regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies.”  He couldn’t imagine American Democracy continuing to flourish without Nature as a primary element.

Whitman’s own experience is the most powerful argument in Speciman Days in support of this theory.  In 1873 at age 56 he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.  Much of the memoir covers the time he spent recuperating on a friend’s farm in southern New Jersey:

Shall I tell you, reader, to what I attribute my already much-restored health? That I have been almost two years, off and on, without drugs and medicines, and daily in the open air. Last summer I found a particularly secluded little dell off one side by my creek, originally a large dug-out marl-pit, now abandon’d, fill’d with bushes, trees, grass, a group of willows, a straggling bank, and a spring of delicious water running right through the middle of it, with two or three little cascades. Here I retreated every hot day, and follow it up this summer. Here I realize the meaning of that old fellow who said he was seldom less alone than when alone. Never before did I get so close to Nature; never before did she come so close to me.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

An invalid’s recovery sitting by a stream is very different from the experience of other American nature-lovers like Henry David Thoreau who explored the wilds of Maine, or John Burroughs who tramped through the Catskills’ primitive forests, or John Muir who ranged throughout the Sierras.  Page after page of Speciman Days recounts the simple experience of being outside, even if only sitting or walking around:

Sunday, Aug. 27.—Another day quite free from mark’d prostration and pain. It seems indeed as if peace and nutriment from heaven subtly filter into me as I slowly hobble down these country lanes and across fields, in the good air—as I sit here in solitude with Nature—open, voiceless, mystic, far removed, yet palpable, eloquent Nature. I merge myself in the scene, in the perfect day. Hovering over the clear brook-water, I am sooth’d by its soft gurgle in one place, and the hoarser murmurs of its three-foot fall in another.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

He was staying with his friends the Stafford family on their farm a few miles south of Camden, New Jersey, near the Timber Creek.  Sometimes he would walk around and wrestle with saplings to stretch out his muscles, while other times he would do little more than loaf around or muse about the past:

The dark smoke-color’d clouds roll in furious silence athwart the sky; the soft green leaves dangle all round me; the wind steadily keeps up its hoarse, soothing music over my head—Nature’s mighty whisper. Seated here in solitude I have been musing over my life—connecting events, dates, as links of a chain, neither sadly nor cheerily, but somehow, to-day here under the oak, in the rain, in an unusually matter-of-fact spirit.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

The entries are short and simple.  They include common-place sights such as trees, water, grass, sunlight, early frost, or lists of the birds and plants he recognized.  The adjectives both qualify the sights and convey feelings:  sane, beauteous, spiritual, gorgeous, vivid, dazzling.  For me, the combination is powerful, it makes me feel like I’m right there with him:

Oct. 20.—A clear, crispy day—dry and breezy air, full of oxygen. Out of the sane, silent, beauteous miracles that envelope and fuse me—trees, water, grass, sunlight, and early frost—the one I am looking at most to-day is the sky. It has that delicate, transparent blue, peculiar to autumn, and the only clouds are little or larger white ones, giving their still and spiritual motion to the great concave. All through the earlier day (say from 7 to 11) it keeps a pure, yet vivid blue. But as noon approaches the color gets lighter, quite gray for two or three hours—then still paler for a spell, till sun-down—which last I watch dazzling through the interstices of a knoll of big trees—darts of fire and a gorgeous show of light-yellow, liver-color and red, with a vast silver glaze askant on the water—the transparent shadows, shafts, sparkle, and vivid colors beyond all the paintings ever made.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

When I went back and reread the text, certain phrases caught my attention, they seemed so simple yet packed so much intensity: “limpid blue, with rolling silver-fringed clouds, and a pure-dazzling sun” — the “the circle-gambols of the swallows flying by dozens in concentric rings in the last rays of sunset, like flashes of some airy wheel” — the “beautiful ghostly moonlight on the floor”  — “the noiseless splash of sunrise.”

Such a play of colors and lights, different seasons, different hours of the day — the lines of the far horizon where the faint-tinged edge of the landscape loses itself in the sky. As I slowly hobble up the lane toward day-close, an incomparable sunset shooting in molten sapphire and gold, shaft after shaft, through the ranks of the long-leaved corn.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

Whitman wasn’t a strident critic of society like Thoreau, but he too felt the tension of conforming to civilized society and its various limitations, as surely we all do to varying degrees:

Away then to loosen, to unstring the divine bow, so tense, so long.  Away, from curtain, carpet, sofa, book — from “society” — from city house, street, and modern improvements and luxuries — away to the primitive winding, aforementioned wooded creek, with its untrimm’d bushes and turfy banks — away from ligatures, tight boots, buttons, and the whole cast-iron civilizee life — from entourage of artificial store, machine, studio, office, parlor — from tailordom and fashion’s clothes — from any clothes, perhaps, for the nonce, the summer heats advancing, there in those watery, shaded solitudes.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

The suggestion to abandon not just boots and buttons but “any clothes, perhaps,” was more than a hint.  Apparently he would sometimes lounge about naked:

Nature was naked, and I was also. It was too lazy, soothing, and joyous-equable to speculate about. Yet I might have thought somehow in this vein: Perhaps the inner never lost rapport we hold with earth, light, air, trees, &c., is not to be realized through eyes and mind only, but through the whole corporeal body, which I will not have blinded or bandaged any more than the eyes. Sweet, sane, still Nakedness in Nature!—ah if poor, sick, prurient humanity in cities might really know you once more! Is not nakedness then indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is indecent. There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent. Perhaps indeed he or she to whom the free exhilarating extasy of nakedness in Nature has never been eligible (and how many thousands there are!) has not really known what purity is—nor what faith or art or health really is.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

“Sweet, sane, still Nakedness” is both a metaphor for the ecstasy he felt in merging himself with the outdoors scene and also a comment that some of society’s rules go too far, becoming irksome and indecent.  Partly this is the case because people in society focus too much on appearances (he uses the word “seems”):

…perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse—what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage—humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together?

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

Whitman makes an interesting observation about the tendency in modern society for people to turn negative, particularly in modern literature:

I, too, like the rest, feel these modern tendencies (from all the prevailing intellections, literature and poems,) to turn everything to pathos, ennui, morbidity, dissatisfaction, death. Yet how clear it is to me that those are not the born results, influences of Nature at all, but of one’s own distorted, sick or silly soul. Here, amid this wild, free scene, how healthy, how joyous, how clean and vigorous and sweet!

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

Elsewhere he elaborates on this “inevitable tendency” among the arts towards “sickliness,” which he attributes to excessive refinement and technicality.  If the artist doesn’t directly experience nature, then he or she is reporting “at second or third hand” and producing a work that is derivative of others rather than inspired by primary experience.  To describe this kind of art, Burroughs used the term “literary disease.” 

The point isn’t that all art is sickly, but only some of it.  The image of large bush comes to mind, with the tallest, strongest branches reaching for the sun, while others wilt in the shadows.  Whitman questions whether other aspects of modern life similarly fall short in comparison to the simple experience of nature:

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

Whitman never abandoned society.  He continued to read, write, correspond and visit with others throughout his life.  He also continued to walk, explore, and travel, taking a trip in his later years to the Midwest and mountain states which he found inspiring.  Nature was to him not just a refuge, but also a standard of beauty against which to judge literature and the arts:

I cannot divest my appetite of literature, yet I find myself eventually trying it all by Nature—first premises many call it, but really the crowning results of all, laws, tallies and proofs….I have fancied the ocean and the daylight, the mountain and the forest, putting their spirit in a judgment on our books.

— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days

In the last chapter of Speciman Days, Whitman quotes the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius to the effect that virtue is “only a living and enthusiastic sympathy with Nature.”  It’s the poet’s job, Whitman concludes, “to bring people back from their persistent strayings and sickly abstractions, to the costless average, divine, original concrete,” in other words, back to nature.

The data referenced earlier indicate that America has largely become an indoors society.  On the streets of Manhattan today many look pale and unfit.  They stare into phones as if uninterested in the surroundings, or unaware (they look a little bit like horses being led around by the halter).  They may be busy and purposeful, or distracted, it’s hard to tell.

I don’t believe they’ve lost their connection to nature, rather nature must be at the root of all the hopes and fears that drive their daily choices.  Perhaps some of them glance around at the office towers, traffic-choked streets, crowded sidewalks strewn with trash, and wonder if something’s missing.  I probably look the same, as I walk down the street, busy thinking of my next trip to the mountains.

 Running the Long Path is available on Amazon


Walt Whitman’s Speciman Days

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