Walt Whitman

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Throughout, Whitman emphasizes that his personal history has been shaped by geography and history, which in turn are the results of cosmic, natural processes. At the same time, he implies that he was in just the right places at the right moments to experience the epic transformations of the nineteenth century. The result is a kind of justification of his life course as the author accommodates himself to his physical debility and the approach of death—and strives to ensure his place in the continuum of American democratic development.

Specimen Days presents the formation of a self through participation in communal and even ecological process; unlike most confessional autobiographies in the Western tradition, Whitman’s emphasizes the dependence of individual identity upon community identity, and thus upon historical placement. Even in the early genealogical portion of the book (the conventional starting point for biographies of the day) the poet links his family experience to the public experience of the nation as a whole. Meditating on the succession of generations buried in the Whitman and Van Velsor cemeteries on Long Island, representing a lineage going back to the first European settlement of the area, he also describes the setting in nationalistic terms, drawing attention to a grove of old black walnuts, “the sons or grandsons, no doubt, of black-walnuts during or before 1776” (Specimen Days 6).

Similarly, when narrating the key experiences of his early life, Whitman emphasizes such events as learning to set type under a man who remembered the American Revolution, being lifted up as a child and kissed by Lafayette a half century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and experiencing the growth of New York City—which for Whitman epitomizes the emergence of modern America. Throughout the book one finds such links between geography and history

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