Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place


“the varieties of the strayed”: Sites of Trauma in Specimen Days
Amy Nestor State University at Buffalo

Mid-way through Specimen Days, Walt Whitman attempts, entry through entry, to bring the section on the Civil War and his care of its wounded to a close, to truly mean the “And so good-bye to the war” with which he opens the last of them. [1]   Yet no matter how begun, no matter how small or grand their claims to “sum up” the War may be, none of the entries reach the desired end.  Each finds itself stumbling upon the dead, “the varieties of the strayed dead,” entrammeling itself repeatedly within the “scathing trail” of their unwitnessed deaths and hasty inhumations, shattering in its lines’ sensing of the bodies, of the palpable spread of their brute, unrecoverable facticity:  “there they lie”--bodies mutilated and broken in the name of the Union whose wholeness their scattering was to preserve, whose renewed wholeness was to collect and embrace them in turn, drawing them into its grounding sense (SD 114-15).  Entangled thus in the bodies and their parts, his words caught and turned in the distances separating them, the only end Whitman can make of the War comes in an abrupt cut through his own straying lines, a cut of prohibition, the by now too-often repeated pronouncement that “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books. . . . will never be written—perhaps must not be and should not be” (117).  Infamous as it has indeed become, much as it has served as the point about which so many fine readings of Whitman’s wartime and post-war writings have eddied, the full ethical force of the must not be and should not be--a proscription that resonates strangely against a poetics whose most significant refusal of saying had come in the demand to not not say all--remains as yet unread.   Turning as it does from the will never be, an almost cliché assertion of the impossibility of war’s representation, the perhaps must not be and should not be illumines with an as yet uncomprehended ethical dimension of the demands the War made upon Whitman, the obligations it imposed, demands and obligations that adumbrate in turn the ethical claims of the War’s history and their relation to the possibility of that history’s writing.


SPECIMEN, n.  [L. from species, with the termination men, which corresponds in sense to the English hood or ness.]  A sample; a part or small portion of anything, intended to exhibit the quality of the whole, or of something not exhibited; as a specimen of a man's handwriting; a specimen of painting or composition; a specimen of one's art or skill. [2]

Specimen Days, like most of Whitman’s writing of and after the War, has been damned and praised, sometimes both at once, in ways that I cannot rehearse here. [3]   Instead, I will risk the broad claim that even the most insightful and rigorous readings of the book have been, almost wholly, across their differences, invested with a desire for healing, for a closure of the trauma of the war itself, in Whitman’s self and time, or, if not, then of their still open wounds, in ours.  We seem to desire from Whitman that he be free of trauma:  we want him to have suffered the trauma of the War, of course, for that would show his relation to, his ability to signify his times, binding him into the flow of history that has led to our own moment, but we want him also to have been healed, in himself, such that he might now, through his text, bear the magnetic power he had then brought, through his body, to the soldiers. [4]   Only through such magnetic healing of himself and others, such readings imply, would he mean for us, heal us, show us, as Betsy Erkkila (to take only a prominent, lucid example) would have him now, the way to heal ourselves, to live our own lives within the aura of his image. [5]  

This does not, I would stress, deny that Whitman wished to heal himself, the nation, us; did not desire, as much after the War as he had before, his embodiment, for (and in) us our nation; rather, it is to argue that something in Specimen Days, coiling through its lines to some other side of his desire, resists such use, demands from us, as it did from him, another relation.  To near that relation, provoking as we may the touch of its resistant recoil, we first ought to draw close one of the words privileged in the title and throughout the book as a way of placing, joining, and identifying each thing Whitman sees, touches, comes to know.  Draw close, that is, the relation of, to a specimen. 

SPECIES, n.  spe'shiz.  [L. from specio, to see.  See Special.] 1. In zoology, a collection of organized beings derived from one common parentage by natural generation, characterized by one peculiar form, liable to vary from the influence of circumstances within certain narrow limits.... 2.  In botany, all the plants which spring from the same seed, or which resemble each other in certain characteristics or invariable forms.... 3.  In logic, a special idea corresponding to the specific distinctions of things in nature. Watts. 4.  Sort; kind; in a loose sense.... 5.  Appearance to the senses; visible or sensible representation.  6.  Representation to the mind.  7.  Show; visible exhibition.  8.  Coin, or coined silver and gold, used as a circulating medium.... 9.  In pharmacy, a simple; a component part of a compound medicine.

A specimen of, say, a day or hour or man or nation can be read as a figure of totalization:  the part shows the essence of the whole, losing there its singularity.  Or it can be viewed as citational, as that which resists totalization:  the part and the shadow of the whole, the part a citational sliver of the whole that preserves in its very incompleteness its essential singularity in and of itself.  Visible to invisible, the value depending on how the invisible is seen.  In readings of Specimen Days, the word has been seen as working both ways. [6]

And Whitman makes it work each way, varying; sometimes, he makes it work both ways at once.  But the specimen, as the part that is to best exemplify the whole without fully being its abstraction, always carries the shadow of the unseen and--as its origin in specio (to see), a word whose “primary root,” Noah Webster tells us, “is to strain, stretch, extend; and as applied to see, the sense is to extend to, to reach, to strike with the eye or sight” suggests--that unseen can strike the sight, causing it to stray.  This happens often, throughout the text, as when Whitman begins by giving us to see a boy, handsome, perfect, the proper specimen of the nation, stilling his fear for it, and then shows the impact of the sight drawing him to a host of the boy’s parts, unable, as he wrote near the end of the book, to resist the sensuous pull of things, always holding to the singular even as he sees the aura of the abstract significance it carries.  His sight begins with the specimen, the whole of the nation the boy bodies forth, then wanders to the boy’s wound, his story, the bed next to him, the hair of the boy within it, etc.; the parts proliferate, each bearing its own claim to attention, undoing the binding of vision and sentence into a whole, whatever it would be, loosening the strands that would have bound the boy--and his wounds, his voice and story, his bandages and his blood in the pail next to his bed--into any determinant meaning, any certain history.  The relationship between the body and what it would mean, the nation, is disarranged even in its stating, and the touch of sight, itself touched in seeing, sends the body--or whatever else the eye has lit upon--scurrying past what would be the target of its sense.  As Whitman sits at the beds of the suffering, something comes undone in seeing--resisting his quite serious efforts, at times, to bind it back into the meaning it would see--and this undoing loosens the relation between part and part, part and part and whole, loosens the possibility of a secure relation that would speak the norm a “specimen” could be made to hold and manifest through itself.


Monday, May 7, 1888

I [Horace Traubel] asked W.:  “Do you go back to those days [of the War]?”  “I do not need to.  I have never left them.  They are here, now, while we are talking together—real, terrible, beautiful days!”  W. was in a very quiet mood.  “Kiss me good night!” he said.  I left. [7]

We might begin to see more intimately this unloosening, particularly as it relates to memory, history, and the must not  . . . should not of writing, by turning to one moment in Whitman’s attempts to close the War.  From the bald statement that “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books,” which is followed by a brief swipe at “the mushy influences of current times,” Whitman cuts suddenly across himself, swerves through his should not into that which it would cover, that which we ought not know:

I have at night watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not live many hours.  I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he raised himself and recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and mutilations of the corpse afterward.  (See, in the preceding pages, the incident at Upperville—the seventeen kill’d as in the description, were left on the ground.  After they dropt dead, no one touch’d them—all were made sure of, however.  The carcasses were left for the citizens to bury or not, as they chose.)  (116-7)

In directing his readers to Upperville, Whitman demands that we return, whether we would or no, to one of the most violent incidents in the book, an incident, perhaps not surprisingly, given the title “A Glimpse of War’s Hell-Scenes” (79).  There, he had detailed, graphically, the murder of surrendered Union soldiers (“One of the officers had his feet pinn’d firmly to the ground by bayonets struck through them and thrust into the ground … Others, not yet dead, but horribly mutilated, were moaning or groaning … men who had surrender’d, most had been thus maim’d or slaughter’d …”), the rescue of the survivors and corpses by an on-rush of Union cavalry, the capture of some of the Confederates responsible for the slaughter, and the execution of those soldiers in turn, again after their surrender (“In a few minutes seventeen corpses strew’d the hollow square”).  The chapter ends with an imperative addressed to the reader:

Multiply the above by scores, aye hundreds—verify it in all the forms that different circumstances, individuals, places, could afford —light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate, boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers, slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.  (81)

Here, Whitman does indeed provide one of the War’s “countless minor scenes and interiors,” and although it, even multiplied, will offer us but an “inkling,” that dark spot of ink (kin to the  bloodstains on the war notebooks themselves, as described in a footnote at the book’s opening; kin also, perhaps, to the filth washed away in the poem “Reconciliation”) stains--burns through, its “black embers” leaving their mark--the salvation Whitman so often claims to have found in “the latent eligibilities of these states” made manifest in his soldiers, completing the Union and restoring his faith in it.  This blackening stain is yet further deepened and dilated by Whitman’s repeated imperatives:  here, in the first relating of Upperville’s slaughter, and there, later, in his reference to it, which mimes the insistent recurrence that “flashes and burns” through and past the dying boy, staining our sight in turn through both what we have been given to see and what remains, palpably invisible, haunting, in darkness around it.

Sunday, December 15, 1889

But he did not despair of America:  “There were years in my life—years there in New York—when I wondered if all was not going to the bad with America—the tendency downwards—but the war saved me:  what I saw in the war set up my hope for all time—the days in the hospitals.”  And these convincing “rather by what they revealed of the common people than by other agents”—and “these not chiefly the fact of battles, marches, what-not—but the social being-ness of the soldiers—the revelation of an exquisite courtesy—man to man—rubbing up there together:  I could say in the highest sense, propriety—propriety, as in the doing of necessary unnamable things, always done with delicacy.”  (WWC, VI 194)

The entry on Upperville is distinctive, however, for more than its unusually detailed description of military violence and cruelty; although Whitman places his strongest emphasis upon the depravity of the Confederates, a group of Moseby’s infamous guerillas, he does not spare the Union soldiers, shows them responding with a brutality and cruelty of their own.  Just as their foes, they kill not in battle but after, for revenge.  This attribution of barbarity, what he often terms “butchery” in letters to his mother, to both sides in the War offers us one of Specimen Days’ first presentations of Northern and Southern soldiers as equals, coming as it does before his stories, increasingly frequent as the conflict nears its end, of the wounded Southerners for whom he cared with impartial gentleness, whom he depicts as innocent brothers and comrades drawn falsely into slaughter, less betrayers of the Union than betrayed by the Confederate government, equal in their eligibility to serve as specimens of the re-joined Union. [8]   That Whitman tells us nothing, in the deathbed scene, of the tormented boy’s sectional allegiance intensifies this crossing of accidental political divisions--even as the fact that the crossing comes not in a shared nobility, comes rather in a specimen explosion of vengeance and its terrorizing memory, causes the latent brotherhood of Secech and Union men to glimmer with a horrifying sheen.  And Whitman holds us to its embers, even as he seeks to close the war and mark the boundaries of what should not be seen, upon this smoldering stain, its vision, directing us to “—light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate, boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers, slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—.”  This imagery, which takes “our young men, once so handsome and joyous” from us, not in death, but in their association with the non-human, the animal and geological, gives us something far other than the latent character Whitman claims to see emerge from the conflict and its dead, something perhaps yet more latent, lit and thus made visible only by the fires of its destructive actions.  The doings here reveal no courtesy, no propriety; they might remain unnamable and unutterable in their horror, but Whitman gives them to us with a graphic force that reveals their movement beyond names, beyond what might be contained--and thus forgotten--held within the language of the human, gives them as what passes to predatory creatures and volcanic eruptions, as what carries no delicacy . . . save, perhaps, that delicacy carried in the precision with which it has engraved its character, as form and sense (or their lack) upon the boy’s mind and eye.

This engraving in turn renders the scene of the boy’s death yet more complex, multiply filtered and framed, for its emphasis falls less upon the hellish event to which the soldier recurs--an event we are never given to see, for which Upperville is but a specimen--than on its impact:  the violence done to the young man as both witness and perpetrator, a young man who dies not with the nobility and calm--“so much of a race,” Whitman had just written, “depends on how it faces death”--given us in so many other deathbed scenes, but transfixed by his part in a vengeance wrecked beyond cause (116).  This specimen boy may have wanted to forget, as Whitman may wanted to have (as we may want to, having read the account of Upperville), but the poet-nurse cannot (any more than the boy), and, as if following the boy’s starting up in response to the flashing, burning cruelty of his implacable memory, Whitman writes the story in an equally insistent violent jump that suggests his inability to follow his own prohibition, to keep what he knows of the War’s infernal interior to himself.  The boy’s memory has spilled over into the one watching beside him, engraving itself in turn upon the other’s eye; then, in its very excess, the recollection refracts its force not simply into the boy, not simply into Whitman, but into us.  And Whitman seems to want its impact to reverberate through our vision, as indicated by the repeated images of seeing and, indeed, the command to “See,” to turn our sight back to Upperville, so that we might know what we have just been told we will not . . .  should not.  Indeed, that should not forces us--and the boy, and Whitman--back into Upperville’s final depredations: acts that go beyond a noble facing of death and the nobility--under necessity, for a cause, with courtesy--of giving death, beyond even the ignoble murder of a surrendered foe, the courtesy and mercy owed him, beyond simple bodily death itself into the “mutilations of the corpse afterwards. . . . The carcasses were left for the citizens to bury or not, as they chose.”  Corpses, carcasses--these meld with the inner qualities the soldiers exhibit, rendering all increasingly less human, less able to incarnate the meaning Whitman repeatedly had sought to find in the marching, the dying, and  “the dead on the field” (114). We are given here en not simply done to death, but done to and giving a death in death, a second death that takes them beyond Nature and its comforting cycles of death and life, its perpetuating transubstantiation of their bodies into the nation’s nourishment, a death that bars them from all figuration, from any meaning. [9]

 This crossing of the must not be . . . should not be with their doing reveal that the must not be . . . should not be carries with it no symmetrical should, no clear, positive law that Whitman can be said to follow, and thus no positive direction for us, as we read, to follow in turn.  The proscription produces no positive content, no graspable sense, no place in or from which to read.  In the asymmetrical absence of a should, the place of writing has itself become unmoored, loosened, set adrift upon us with a certain strangeness, a sense, almost, of violation--of being drawn too deeply into an intimate moment that imposes upon us an obligation uncontainable within the notions of understanding--or empathy--that we might normally bring to the text:  You should not look/You must see, listen, attend  . . . bear witness  . . .  Imperatives that demand action without prescribing what the content of that action ought to be.

In this, Whitman’s movement athwart his own prohibition, we can begin to see the emergence of the ethical dimension of Whitman’s not to writing:  it rests in the demand of listening to the other’s wound, to the call of a history that, spilling as it does from the invisible lost who call upon the solider to the solider himself to Whitman to us, is never simply one’s own. [10]   As Cathy Caruth has written of Freud’s own writing of traumatic history in Moses and Monotheism, the call to a departure from simple reference, be it complete or incomplete, into one’s own survival, is the obligation that that survival bears. [11]   And for Whitman, in distinction from Caruth, this departure--and the shattering of self and body, by sight and paralysis, in the transmission of hospital poisons to which he attributed his post-war illness and paralytic stroke--is always eroticized, thus inflecting the lines that would mark the repetition of Civil War trauma with the shock that brings consciousness to its first awakening, through the traumatic, shattering arrival of sexuality.  For this arrival, as Leo Bersani argues, “comes ‘at the wrong time’ in human life--but, as I have been suggesting, it is created by that wrong time…. Human sexuality is constituted as a kind of psychic shattering, as a threat to the stability and integrity of the self--a threat which perhaps only the masochistic nature of sexual pleasure allows us to survive.” [12]   That anterior trauma refracts forward into the traumas of War, each concatenating the other, inseparable but not the same, repeating themselves always with a change, a change that works athwart—that, we might say, queers—any reach for healing and the norms that would name its stabilization into knowing.

November 16,  1888 

Did you read the huge hospital letter?  Did it remind you of anything?  My relations with the boys there in Washington had fatherly, motherly, brotherly intimations—touched life on many sides:  sympathetically, spiritually, dynamically: took me away from surfaces to roots.  I don’t seem to be able to review that experience, that period, without extreme emotional stirrings—almost depressions … I don’t seem to be able to stand it in the present condition of my body.  (WWC, III 110-1)

In the wake of the War of Secession, something--some bit or piece lying here and there in his writing--in Whitman did not heal, and for all his pronouncements of Union, the haunting of his text by figures of shattering and paralysis and what ought be left dead and what must not be said suggest not the commonly claimed withdrawal and loss of power in the post-war editions of Leaves of Grass but a disfiguration of self and nation that Whitman writes in insisting to write in the face of his own paralysis, his all but loss of half of his body, his linguistically figured powerful self. That his oft-repeated faith in the future of the Union came from bodies themselves mutilated, exhausted, amputated, worn by disease, dying, or dead coalesces with his own post-war state.  And what is left out is not his body, or the bodies marked by the violence of war, but any unified and affirmative answer he might offer to the questions of reconciliation and healing themselves.

        The most intense inflections of the text by trauma come when Whitman is confronted with masses of bodies of the wounded:  his sight wanders from body to body, fascinated, relating the part of one to the part of the other in “strange analogies,” as he says of his at once terribly graphic and terribly opaque “A Night Battle, Over a Week Hence” (SD 45-48).  There, Nature mixes with bodies, exchanging qualities, while the light of the moon loses its cool, disinterested gaze, entangling itself with the explosive fires consuming the bodies of men, their limbs entangled in turn with limbs of trees.  Everything--light, body, manly nobility, tree, grass--shatters into pieces that will not cohere, that are “wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary”:  “Who can tell,” he asks, “this fragmentary glimpse?” [13]    Sight finds itself violently marked by the bodies whose mutilations it has seen, as if it had participated in the dismemberment.  Nature appears almost active in the battle, entrammeled in its violence, stained, so much so that when the specimen soldier staggers away to die, his image crumbles past telling--but not, this time, into a receptive earth that, elsewhere, Whitman figures as converting the “strayed dead” into the Union’s breath and bread. 

Yet horrifying as the boy’s crumbling is, it ultimately carries no need for such healing transubstantiation: even as the bodies of the young men found within the hospitals, young men whom Whitman will so often call his own, carry the stench of battle that sections of Specimen Days would rinse away so as to reveal their manly beauty, even as they verge on the non-human in their mutilations, mental wanderings, and violence, Whitman himself seems to require no cleansing hands to find the beauty they carry still.  Faced with the stains, the spots, the butchery and demonic character, faced with the living dead who come home from the “hell-pits” of the Southern prison camps--who provoke from him the question “Are these men?”--Whitman slides away from the wholesome Nature whose healing force he will so laud, to which he will turn in his attempts, in the last sections of the book, to cross over the devising line of War and restore the health of the Union.  Vision shattered and yet voice holding in a non-teleological, non-healing care, Whitman forever offers instead his own receptive generosity in the small gifts, the listening, the simple sitting beside, and the kisses (kisses, he notes, more than often returned) he again and again records himself as placing upon the worst cases--the ones beyond recovery, putrid with gangrene and dysentery and diarrhea--upon their soil’d humanity, their living in death.

This is shredding, what cannot be brought fully into sight, what threatens meaning itself, the body undone, scattered into strange relations, shattering, Whitman confesses, for all that he holds onto the veneer of identity, the firmness of his voice.  Yet amidst all the horror there resonates also a sort of pleasure--the rush and horror of fascination in his descriptions betraying a kind of participation that oscillates uncomfortably--for us, at least--between pleasure and pain, that partakes of both the pain and the cutting performed by its own vision, at once, together, even as everything else is blown apart. [14]   We see this again at Timber Creek, where Whitman gives his body over to Nature and the reader, displaying himself naked, giving himself over to the trees, joining with them in a plainly erotic pleasure that takes him beyond himself, takes parts of his body into the trees, parts of them--their sap--into him.  “Becoming animal, becoming tree … other” writes Giles Deleuze of these scenes, marking the change in Whitman, the way that his relations stray into strange places. [15]   After the War, his body split and paralyzed, Whitman gives up his investment in its integrity, and his sight carries us with him, often not returning wholly--wayward returns that, in their very straying, give a kind of pleasure, a kind submission to his dismemberment and, through him, our own.

Thus the strangeness of the book.  Of his experiences with his soldiers, of the fragmenting horror of his care and sight and listening, Whitman would tell his New York friends of his enjoyment--“I am in my element,” he would write, “These boys know how to love,”--exclamations embraced by details of the horror and Whitman’s own pain in their pain.  The point is not only, as Michael Moon has finely argued, that Whitman offers a new form of mourning, crossing an unspoken boundary to speak of his love for the dead, important though that be. [16]   Something stranger is at work:  Whitman’s love, a love that cannot be reduced, as so many would have it, to sublimation of his homosexuality; nor normalized, as others would have it, into a series of intimate and personal relations expressive of a healed and healing gay identity.  Identity--and its lack--is indeed part of what is at stake here.  Whitman loves the body parts, the fragmentations, the mutilations in and of themselves, beyond the redemption of meaning, not as they are signs of something--even the signs of the whole body, dead or alive, the person to whom the body belongs.  Nor is this a fascination with violence for itself, a pleasure in the pain of others, a desire that they suffer, a finding in that suffering a greater truth.  Whitman truly cares for his boys, comforts them, to the point that he begins to feel their pain in his own body, taking in the poison, being touched and taken, as he told Traubel, “from surfaces to roots.”  Not that he seeks their suffering but that, in finding it, crossing the border into war, its turning of men beyond men, always verging on the more or less than human, monsters and demons and beasts and ghosts, he does not find the pollution usually attributed to war and its remains.  Or, more precisely, he finds that pollution and he loves it.  He loves the remains of what Jacques Lacan would call the second death--not the physical death of the body that inscribes it within the processes of Nature, but the death of the body as a human body, with the possibility to mean. [17]    Confronted with that loss of identity, that second death, Whitman need not ask after its meaning, does not recoil in horror:  while he carefully inscribes the names of each boy whose story he tells, whom he tends, preserving the mark of their singulairty, he allows the relation between body and its parts and name--and the story of horror done that might go with it--to stray, to be less than whole, to not add up to a coherent relation.  And this is what he cherishes--the most abject, most lost. [18]

Such cherishing of the abject Whitman repeats at Timber Creek, although this time as something more clearly close to sheer enjoyment, the dismemberment always imaginary, a matter of his sight and touch, not the literal rending done by war.  Timber Creek repeats the War, willingness, indeed, the desire to be shattered--the ability to go beyond the personal, what would be called the human.  Thus, the return to Nature is, in a way, a return to the trauma of the War, but a return as shattering in a different register, with a different inflection of suffering pleasure.  The repetiton is not exact; it never is.  Nor does Timber Creek represent a healing of the trauma of the War, for Whitman is clearly not healed, in body or in spirit, as the lines in which his body crops out, in which pain seeps into the lines of his sight, make resonantly clear.  Rather, there is a relation of traumas that entwines the War with anterior, constitutive sexual traumas, giving us the sexual-but-not, the verging on the erotic of his relationships with trees.  The two are irreducible to each other, and they tell us, in the end, less of Whitman himself than his being in relation, his giving himself over:  for all his aloneness, endlessly stressed in the Timber Creek passages, Whitman never appears save in relation, attached to something else, becoming it.  And here rests part of the scandal of Specimen Days and the post War writing, its queerness--the love Whitman can give to limbs of trees and mutilated men, the love that cannot be reduced to any sort of norm.  In this irreducibility, he both answers the demand of a pain not his own with care, a care without concern for healing ends, and passes it on to us, as a demand that we can only but be obligated to answer, bearing witness in turn.


[1] Walt Whitman, Specimen Days: Collected Prose, 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall, vol. I (New York: NYU Press, 1963), 1.  Hereafter cited in the text as SD; all irregularities and idiosyncrasies of spelling in this and other Whitman texts are his own.  To clarify the distinction between my elisions of the text and Whitman’s own use of ellipses, I will mark mine by brackets.

[2] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, facsimile ed. (1841; New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1970).  All other definitions and etymologies will come from this edition.

[3] I offer an extended analysis of this aspect of Whitman criticism in “Taking Care of the Lacks—Should(not)Healing.”  See my Straying Aside/Bodying Athwart--Without the Lines of Traumatic History in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days and W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, diss., SUNY at Buffalo (Ann Arbor: UMI, 2005), 152-175.

[4] Harold Aspiz finely explains the theories of magnetism and electricity current in Whitman’s time:  some people--as Whitman’s use of the terms “magnetism” and “electricity” indicate he saw himself--were seen as endowed with mesmeric powers, a kind of electric magnetism, that gave them the ability to heal; see Harold Aspiz, Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980), 143-79.  For Whitman’s own references to electricity and magnetism as connective and often healing forces, see, especially, SD 23-4, 61-2.

[5] This is true even for those critics who mention, usually with a certain quick casualness, Whitman’s traumatization by the War.  Such analysis, usually brief, still embodies the desire I have sketched out above:  first, in their failure to rigorously theorize trauma itself and what it would mean to say that Whitman suffered its affliction; second, in the tone of condemnation that seems to follow, the sense that Whitman somehow did not want to recover, as that would mean facing the horrors of the post-bellum nation, and in the tying of this lack of recovery to the diminution of his poetic powers; lastly, in that all such mentions consider the trauma to be Whitman’s alone, a kind of pathology that cuts him off from the nation and history, rather than speaking something of it, indirectly, as what falls through the lines of a positive rendering of sense.  For such references to Whitman’s trauma, see Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 1973), 328; James Dawes, The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. from the Civil War through World War II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002), 68; Erkkila 210-9, 260-78; and M. Wynn Thomas, The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987), 205-6, 225-6, 249-50.  For history as a falling through reference, see Cathy Caruth’s reading of Paul De Man in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996), 73-90; Marc Redfield’s analysis of the (cryptically marked, if marked at all) place of history in De Man’s work in his The Politics of Aesthetics:  Nationalism, Gender, and Romanticism (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003), 95-124; Shoshanna Felman, “After the Apocalypse: Paul De Man and the Fall to Silence,” Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, eds. Felman and Dori Laub (New York:  Routledge, 1992), 120-164; and, of course, the corpus of De Man’s work itself; arbitrarily, one might begin with the essays in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New Haven: Yale UP, 1984).  I am, of course, myself somewhat guilty here of the failure to fully and rigorously theorize the traumatic structure of Specimen Days and, more generally, Whitman’s wartime and post-war writing.  Space allows me but the sketch I have made.  Further explication lies, for the moment, in my dissertation and the work-in-progress that is emerging from it.

[6] For a reading of “specimen” as totalizing--if not totalitarian--see Timothy Sweet, Traces of War: Poetry, Photography, and the Crisis of the Union (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990), 36-40; for its reading as citational, see Robert Leigh Davis, Walt Whitman and the Romance of Medicine (Berkeley: U of California P, 1997), 93-100.

[7] Horace Traubel, eds., et al, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. I  [(Various places and publishers), 1908-1996], 116.  Henceforth cited in the text as WWC with volume and page numbers.

[8] See, for example, Whitman’s letter of 22 March 1864:  “—O mother, to think that we are to have here soon what I have seen so many times, the awful loads  & trains & boat loads of poor bloody & pale & wounded young men again—for that is what we certainly will, & before very long—I see all the little signs, getting ready in the hospitals &c.—it is dreadful, when one thinks about it—I sometimes think over the sights I have myself seen, the arrival of the wounded after battle, & the scenes on the field too, & I can hardly believe my own recollection—what an awful thing war is—Mother, it seems not men but a lot of devils & butchers butchering each other—.”  Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, vol. I (New York: New York UP, 1961), 204.  Hereafter cited in the text as WWCorr., followed by volume and page numbers.  In the early entries about the War itself and his time in Washington, Whitman habitually refers to Southerners--soldiers and leaders--as the Secesh and clearly marks them as less noble than “our” boys.  His change of language and attitude comes as he makes contact with wounded members of the Confederate rank and file, whom he begins to distinguish from their leaders, as he sees more and more of them, thin and tattered, marched captive through the streets of the city. 

[9]   See, for example, the previous entry, “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up,” where the “infinite dead” are “in Nature’s chemistry distill’d” through the soil upon which they had fallen, becoming wheat and corn and air to sustain the future Nation (115).

[10] As Cathy Caruth writes, “we can also read the address of the voice here, not as the story of the individual in relation to the events of his own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound.”  See Unclaimed Experience 8, as well as her more recent essay "Parting Words: Trauma, Silence, and Survival,"  Acts of Narrative, eds. Carol Jacobs and Henry Sussman (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003), 47-61.

[11] Caruth, Unclaimed Experience 71.

[12] Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), 39-40.  I would stress here, as does Bersani, that the use of the terms “erotic” and “sexual” do not involve what we would normally characterize as sexual acts; rather, at work here is the quality of a self-shattering excitement that can attach itself to and be provoked by any number of experiences and objects, the putatively sexual perhaps of least interest among them.  Bersani explores this further, with particular relation to our conceptualization of history, in The Culture of Redemption (New York: Harvard UP, 1990).

[13] The phrase “wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary” is one Whitman uses, in the opening, to describe the book as a whole; there, his tone carries a certain glee in his own perversity, but in the Civil War sections, it applies in a much grimmer sense; SD 1.

[14] Aspiz details Whitman’s ambulance chasing in the years preceding the Civil War, seeing his fascination with violence as one of the main motives for his interest in firemen and their injuries; he also suggests that Whitman favored the Armory Hospital because it held the worst cases; see Aspiz 62-84.  Traubel details a scene in which an extremely bloody accident was mentioned in passing, noting that Whitman queried the teller intensely, wanting all the details; see WWC VII.22.

[15] Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997), 56-60.  Gary Schimdgall, following Charley Shively, proposes that the passage is written in code, the sexual play with the tree a cover for his relation with Harry Stafford.  Even were this true, what remains in writing is Whitman’s relation with the tree, his giving himself over to it, its giving itself over to him, his reception, and it is this mode of exchange, on the verge of the sexual but never quite there, that characterizes so much of Specimen Days--and so much of what has not been read, as if to do so would cross a border.  See Gary Schmidgall, Walt Whitman: A Gay Life (New York: Dutton, 1997), 93-98.

[16] Michael Moon, “Memorial Rags,” Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature, eds. George E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman (New York: MLA, 1995), 223-39; and “Rereading Whitman under Pressure of AIDS: His Sex Radicalism and Ours,” ed. Robert K. Martin, The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life after the Life (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992), 53-66.

[17] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-61,  ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: Norton, 1992), 248-53.

[18] This line of reading owes its clarity to Leo Bersani’s theorization of sexuality as a desire for repetitive shattering:  “We desire what shatters us, and the shattering experience is, it would seem, without any specific content--which may be our only way of saying that the experience cannot be said, that it belongs to the nonlinguistic biology of human life.” This is not to say that sexuality can be reduced to biology, for sexuality in itself is precisely what we do not share with animals, what is unnatural, ”a kind of functional aberration of the species” born of “the abortive, incomplete, and undeveloped beginnings of human life.”  That is, sexuality is bound to trauma and its repetition, and Bersani offers the beginnings of a way to think this sexual trauma with historical trauma that would not reduce one to another even as it might explain a certain pleasure--a pleasure whose speaking, in relation to historical trauma, might itself cross another border of propriety.  Further clarity is provided by Tim Dean’s reading of the ability to love the abject, first, and, second, his theorization of Queerness as that which resists normalization--the pathological reduction of sexuality to the constraints of identity--by depersonalizing sexuality past those bounds.  For this is what Whitman does in Specimen Days, in his ability to love, in his giving over of himself to what undoes the human itself, as a norm, be the recipient a dying boy or a beautiful oak tree. See Dean, Beyond Sexuality (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000), 201-38; and Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), 39-40.

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place