A Specimen Day

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Walt Whitman was born this day 200 years ago, “starting from fish-shape Paumanok” or Long Island as the prosaic call it. (What a boring day for geography that was! “It sure is a long island, by nab, so we might as well call it ‘Long,’ right?”).

Whitman was a resident of Brooklyn for 28 years, but only one of the places he lived has survived in the constant urban churn. 99 Ryerson Street is nondescript: no matter, he was living there when the first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. He kept reworking and revising this protean salmagundi of a book, taking it from a dozen poems to over 400 for the “deathbed edition” of 1891. I take my quote above from the last section of “Song of Myself” from that last edition. (I’ll be taking part in the SOM Marathon on 6/2.)

John Burroughs, who supplied the motto of this blog, wrote the first biography of Whitman, Notes on Walt Whatman as Poet and Person published in 1867. Whitman quotes Burroughs in Specimen Days, with some changes and deletions to the original (which was itself edited by Whitman before it was published). The collage-like Specimen Days begins with some delightful reminiscences of the Long Island of the Paumanacker Walt’s youth, by the way, and includes notes on nature very much worth reading.

“Specimen” comes from the Latin specere, to look; the first commandment of the naturalist. So, although Days also includes his writing about of the bloody horrors of the Civil War, he doesn’t mean the clinical or laboratory sense of “specimen,” the usage used almost exclusively today. He means exemplary. “Loafe with me on the grass,” and if you haven’t got meadow, the beach pebbles…

Now, let’s not get too carried away. Whitman both transcends his time and is mired in it. His views of women were quite traditional, even as he befriended feminists and paved the way for a new sensuality, a new sexuality (all kinds: hetero- and homo- sexuality were not then words). He was a cool abolitionist, not a “hot” one. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., notes in the necessary Stony the Roady: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, “Being an advocate of the abolition of slavery was not the same thing as being a proponent of the fundamental equality of black and white people, or the unity of the human species.” As Redemption terrorism literally executed the vestiges of Reconstruction, WW got more and more racist as he aged.

If you’re in or near NYC, there are Whitman exhibits at NYPL, the Grolier Club, and the Morgan. For three weeks in June, they’ll all be running at the same time, so you can see them all in one specimen day. (I’ve written about the exhibits for Fine Books and Collections magazine, out in June).

“… I restore my book to the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.”(Cover of the 1855 edition, on display at NYPL.)

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