Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Light Confessional: "Specimen Days"

One of the things I do for work is write articles about American military history. This means I do a lot of research both on the internet and in non-fiction books. Right now, I’m reading through Walt Whitman’s book “Specimen Days,” the first 40 percent or so of which deals with his life in Washington DC during the Civil War. I’ve never written about any of the books I’ve read for work on this blog before, just because this is a YA book blog generally, and I figure most people aren’t as fascinated by American military history as I am. But “Specimen Days” has proved to be something special, and I wanted to share it with you. So this is less a review, I guess, than a reflection.

I’ve researched dozens of articles on various Civil War topics since I started working this job, and over the course of writing them, I’ve come to view the war with an impartiality courtesy of the long lens of history. Battles and their casualties are facts and figures, the armies a faceless mass of blue or gray, and even amusing anecdotes don’t always seem to be about real people rather than characters in a book. But Whitman’s “Specimen Days” changed that for me. If in the past I looked at the war telescopically, trying to see the big picture, Whitman’s book has been like a magnifying glass, focusing my gaze on small, quiet moments that gently urge me to feel something about the war rather than just know something.

Much of “Speciman Days” recounts Whitman’s visits to the many military hospitals in Washington, where he did his best to distract injured and sick soldiers from the pain and monotony of hospital life. He wrote letters for them to their loved ones, distributed fruit and sweets, and most of all, spent countless hours simply talking with them. And while Whitman never goes into extensive detail about his experiences, somehow his brief observations manage to show me the war in a way I’ve never seen it before. Like this short passage, for instance, which describes a young hospitalized Wisconsin soldier who is near death due to a hemorrhage: “The poor young man is struggling painfully for breath, his great dark eyes with a glaze already upon them, and the choking faint but audible in his throat. An attendant sits by him, and will not leave him till the last; yet little or nothing can be done. He will die here in an hour or two, without the presence of kith or kin. Meantime the ordinary chat and business of the ward a little way off goes on indifferently. Some of the inmates are laughing and joking, others are playing checkers or cards, others are reading, &c.”

Something about that image of one man dying virtually unnoticed while life goes on for the others around him struck me in a way that knowing the vast numbers of battlefield deaths never has. It’s in scenes like this that Whitman manages to make the war personal instead of just an interesting chapter in a history book. I look at the Civil War with 150 years of perspective, and from that vantage point, one dying soldier from Wisconsin doesn’t seem significant when viewed against the backdrop of an estimated 620,000–750,000 total war deaths. He’s just one drop in a rather depressing bucket. But Whitman, writing at the time of the soldier’s death or a few years after doesn’t have the benefit (or perhaps detriment) of that century and a half to consider whose deaths are relevant in the grand scheme of the war. Where I see the dying man as a statistic from a bygone era, Whitman sees an individual whose imminent death is still a raw reality to be grappled with. To Whitman, the death of this solitary unnamed lieutenant is significant, and seeing his death through Whitman’s eyes has shown me that the impartiality of my telescopic view isn’t the only—or even necessarily the best—way to view the war.

Sorry if I’ve gone on too long about this, but “Specimen Days” really made an impact on me. Obviously. If you are interested in the book, it can be found here. Or if you’re not up for the whole book, one of my favorite passages is this one.

1 comment:

  1. That passage really is powerful. I think what you've said about statistics versus one personalized encounter with one soldier is dead on with how most of us would view recounts of war.


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