O is for Old Walt’s Speciman Days

| April 29, 2014

One of my favorite books is Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, his journal of vignettes spanning his boyhood in Brooklyn and his days at the Brooklyn Eagle to his experiences as a nurse for soldiers of Civil War battles all the way (with large gaps in between) to his later years in Camden, NJ where he died. He captures so many magical details of his day which create veritable time capsule of America in the 1800s. The glimpses of New York are particularly fascinating, but of course I am biased. He recalls the names of the drivers of carriage cabs in Soho, ” Broadway Jack, Dressmaker, Balky Bill, George Storms, Old Elephant, his brother Young Elephant (who came afterward,) Tippy, Pop Rice, Big Frank, Yellow Joe, Pete Callahan, Patsy Dee, and dozens more” (Specimen Days, 13), the shows playing in Broadway theatres at the time, the bustling taverns. He also recalls the names and faces of the Civil War soldiers he sat beside and the sad phrases in the letters he would write for them before they died. He describes haunting glimpses of Lincoln who he would see riding in an open carriage in Washington, DC. so often that they would tip their hats to one another– and the faces of the handsome soldiers on the wide avenues around the White House. The book is a messy, amebous, enthralling autobiography– an inspiring model of journaling to share with and inspire middle/high school or college writers working on their own journals.



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