Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Specimen Days

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Specimen Days

by Michael Cunningham

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham X
Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2006, 352 pages

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Beyond the Book

This article relates to Specimen Days

Print Review

Walter Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island, New York where his father worked as a carpenter and farmer.  He was educated in Brooklyn until the age of 12, after which he left school to work as an office boy, and soon after as a printer's assistant.  During the next few years he contributed articles to newspapers (including some of the earliest coverage of baseball games) and taught in various schools.  In 1838 he founded, and was the first editor of, the Huntington based Long Islander newspaper (which still exists today).  He continued to educate himself by attending the opera, theatre and through copious reading, and also found time to edit a couple of other newspapers including the Brooklyn Eagle, from which he was dismissed in 1848 because of his outspoken views on slavery.

By 1848 he was writing poetry in earnest.  He self published his first volume of twelve poems in 1855 in Leaves of Grass.  It was not well received - his free-flowing style, personal subject-matter and sexual allusions being a little much for the tastes of the time! 

In 1862 he went to Virginia to find his brother who had been wounded during the Civil War, and then went on to Washington DC where he nursed wounded soldiers.  He took a job in the Department of the Interior but was dismissed when it was learned that he was the author of Leaves of Grass. However, the attorney general's office were less fastidious and he was able to find employment there for almost 10 years until he suffered a paralytic stroke.

His second book of poems, Drum Taps (1865) was better received.  In 1877 he published his first work of prose Democratic Vistas, followed by Specimen Days in 1882.  Although he was revered by a few in the USA as the 'Good Gray Poet', it was not until many decades after his death that he received wide recognition.

For any self-published authors reading this who feel their work is under appreciated, you might be comforted to know that I found a 'first edition' copy of Leaves of Grass for sale for $12,500 - and from the publication date I don't believe it is even the very first edition but instead an edition published some 20 years later!

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This "beyond the book article" relates to Specimen Days. It originally ran in June 2005 and has been updated for the April 2006 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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