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Specimen Days

Whitman and Butterfly

Walt Whitman.  Specimen Days & Collect.  Philadelphia:  Rees Welsh & Co. 1882-1883. 

David McKay also took on Whitman's unconventional autobiography, Specimen Days, "a rapid skimming over the pond-surface of my life” (Corr.  3: 315).  The Lilly copy is a First edition, first printing (Myerson 215), with yellow cloth binding and gold-stamped signature on front cover.    

Drawing on notes he had assembled over many years, as well as published work such as Memoranda During the War, Whitman paralleled fragments of his own life with the life of the nation.  Specimen Days was, as Justin Kaplan has said, Whitman’s Walden, and indeed the meditations inspired by the Pond at Timber Creek, where he sought to recover from his stroke, are among the most moving sections of the book (Kaplan 371).  By 1 December 1882, 925 of the 1000 copies printed had been sold. 

The volume carries an advertisement in the back for the Philadelphia edition of Leaves of Grass, “the only full and finally authentic collection” of Whitman’s poetry that contains “every page, every line, every word attempted to be officially suppressed by Messrs. Marston, Attorney-General of Massachusetts—Stevens, Boston District-Attorney—Tobey, U.S. Post Master at Boston, and others.”  In this photograph taken in 1877 by W. Curtis Taylor of Broadbent & Taylor in Philadelphia, Whitman contemplates the now iconic butterfly, a photographic prop made of cardboard (kept at the Library of Congress).  The placement is not arbitrary:  the portrait faces a passage in which Whitman is watching the butterflies skate over the glistening surface of the pond at Timber Creek and claims that he has “tamed” one of them, who comes to him and “knows” him.