Specimen Days and Collect, Walt Whitman
Specimen Days and Collect
Walt Whitman
13:21 h History Lvl 9.36
"Specimen Days" is a collection of many short paragraphs, diary entries, or excerpts in the life of Walt Whitman, American poet, essayist and journalist, that starts with some vignettes about his ancestors and Whitman's early life in Long Island and Brooklyn.

Specimen Days and Collect

by
Walt Whitman


Specimen Days and Collect

Specimen Days

A Happy Hour’s Command

Down in the Woods, July 2d, 1882. — If I do it at all I must delay no longer. Incongruous and full of skips and jumps as is that huddle of diary-jottings, war-memoranda of 1862-’65, Nature-notes of 1877-’81, with Western and Canadian observations afterwards, all bundled up and tied by a big string, the resolution and indeed mandate comes to me this day, this hour, — (and what a day! What an hour just passing! the luxury of riant grass and blowing breeze, with all the shows of sun and sky and perfect temperature, never before so filling me, body and soul), — to go home, untie the bundle, reel out diary-scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another, into print-pages, and let the melange’s lackings and wants of connection take care of themselves. It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow; how few of life’s days and hours (and they not by relative value or proportion, but by chance) are ever noted. Probably another point, too, how we give long preparations for some object, planning and delving and fashioning, and then, when the actual hour for doing arrives, find ourselves still quite unprepared, and tumble the thing together, letting hurry and crudeness tell the story better than fine work. At any rate I obey my happy hour’s command, which seems curiously imperative. May be, if I don’t do anything else, I shall send out the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed.

Very different are most of the memoranda that follow. Some time after the war ended I had a paralytic stroke, which prostrated me for several years. In 1876 I began to get over the worst of it. From this date, portions of several seasons, especially summers, I spent at a secluded haunt down in Camden county, New Jersey — Timber creek, quite a little river (it enters from the great Delaware, twelve miles away) — with primitive solitudes, winding stream, recluse and woody banks, sweet-feeding springs, and all the charms that birds, grass, wild-flowers, rabbits and squirrels, old oaks, walnut trees, &c., can bring. Through these times, and on these spots, the diary from page 76 onward was mostly written.

The Collect afterwards gathers up the odds and ends of whatever pieces I can now lay hands on, written at various times past, and swoops all together like fish in a net.

I suppose I publish and leave the whole gathering, first, from that eternal tendency to perpetuate and preserve which is behind all Nature, authors included; second, to symbolize two or three specimen interiors, personal and other, out of the myriads of my time, the middle range of the Nineteenth century in the New World; a strange, unloosen’d, wondrous time. But the book is probably without any definite purpose that can be told in a statement.

Answer to an Insisting Friend

You ask for items, details of my early life — of genealogy and parentage, particularly of the women of my ancestry, and of its far-back Netherlands stock on the maternal side — of the region where I was born and raised, and my mother and father before me, and theirs before them — with a word about Brooklyn and New York cities, the times I lived there as lad and young man. You say you want to get at these details mainly as the go-befores and embryons of “Leaves of Grass.” Very good; you shall have at least some specimens of them all. I have often thought of the meaning of such things — that one can only encompass and complete matters of that kind by exploring behind, perhaps very far behind, themselves directly, and so into their genesis, antecedents, and cumulative stages. Then as luck would have it, I lately whiled away the tedium of a week’s half-sickness and confinement, by collating these very items for another (yet unfulfilled, probably abandon’d,) purpose; and if you will be satisfied with them, authentic in date-occurrence and fact simply, and told my own way, garrulous-like, here they are. I shall not hesitate to make extracts, for I catch at anything to save labor; but those will be the best versions of what I want to convey.

Genealogy — Van Velsor and Whitman

The later years of the last century found the Van Velsor family, my mother’s side, living on their own farm at Cold Spring, Long Island, New York State, near the eastern edge of Queen’s county, about a mile from the harbor. My father’s side — probably the fifth generation from the first English arrivals in New England — were at the same time farmers on their own land —(and a fine domain it was, 500 acres, all good soil, gently sloping east and south, about one-tenth woods, plenty of grand old trees,) two or three miles off, at West Hills, Suffolk county. The Whitman name in the Eastern States, and so branch and South, starts undoubtedly from one John Whitman, born 1602, in Old England, where he grew up, married, and his eldest son was born in 1629. He came over in the “True Love” in 1640 to America, and lived in Weymouth, Mass., which place became the mother-hive of the New-Englanders of the name; he died in 1692. His brother, Rev. Zechariah Whitman, also came over in the “True Love,” either at that time or soon after, and lived at Milford, Conn. A son of this Zechariah, named Joseph, migrated to Huntington, Long Island, and permanently settled there. Savage’s “Genealogical Dictionary” (vol. iv, p. 524) gets the Whitman family establish’d at Huntington, per this Joseph, before 1664. It is quite certain that from that beginning, and from Joseph, the West Hill Whitmans, and all others in Suffolk county, have since radiated, myself among the number. John and Zechariah both went to England and back again divers times; they had large families, and several of their children were born in the old country. We hear of the father of John and Zechariah, Abijah Whitman, who goes over into the 1500’s, but we know little about him, except that he also was for some time in America.

These old pedigree-reminiscences come up to me vividly from a visit I made not long since (in my 63d year) to West Hills, and to the burial grounds of my ancestry, both sides. I extract from notes of that visit, written there and then:

The Old Whitman and Van Velsor Cemeteries

July 29, 1881. — After more than forty years’ absence, (except a brief visit, to take my father there once more, two years before he died,) went down Long Island on a week’s jaunt to the place where I was born, thirty miles from New York city. Rode around the old familiar spots, viewing and pondering and dwelling long upon them, everything coming back to me. Went to the old Whitman homestead on the upland and took a view eastward, inclining south, over the broad and beautiful farm lands of my grandfather (1780,) and my father. There was the new house (1810,) the big oak a hundred and fifty or two hundred years old; there the well, the sloping kitchen-garden, and a little way off even the well-kept remains of the dwelling of my great-grandfather (1750-’60) still standing, with its mighty timbers and low ceilings. Near by, a stately grove of tall, vigorous black-walnuts, beautiful, Apollo-like, the sons or grandsons, no doubt, of black-walnuts during or before 1776. On the other side of the road spread the famous apple orchard, over twenty acres, the trees planted by hands long mouldering in the grave (my uncle Jesse’s,) but quite many of them evidently capable of throwing out their annual blossoms and fruit yet.

I now write these lines seated on an old grave (doubtless of a century since at least) on the burial hill of the Whitmans of many generations. Fifty or more graves are quite plainly traceable, and as many more decay’d out of all form — depress’d mounds, crumbled and broken stones, cover’d with moss — the gray and sterile hill, the clumps of chestnuts outside, the silence, just varied by the soughing wind. There is always the deepest eloquence of sermon or poem in any of these ancient graveyards of which Long Island has so many; so what must this one have been to me? My whole family history, with its succession of links, from the first settlement down to date, told here — three centuries concentrate on this sterile acre.

The next day, July 30, I devoted to the maternal locality, and if possible was still more penetrated and impress’d. I write this paragraph on the burial hul of the Van Velsors, near Cold Spring, the most significant depository of the dead that could be imagin’d, without the slightest help from art, but far ahead of it, soil sterile, a mostly bare plateau-flat of half an acre, the top of a hill, brush and well grown trees and dense woods bordering all around, very primitive, secluded, no visitors, no road (you cannot drive here, you have to bring the dead on foot, and follow on foot.) Two or three-score graves quite plain; as many more almost rubb’d out. My grandfather Cornelius and my grandmother Amy (Naomi) and numerous relatives nearer or remoter, on my mother’s side, lie buried here. The scene as I stood or sat, the delicate and wild odor of the woods, a slightly drizzling rain, the emotional atmosphere of the place, and the inferr’d reminiscences, were fitting accompaniments.

The Maternal Homestead

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