Friday, June 4, 2010

Text Discussion #2: Specimen Case - Specimen Days

"Specimen Case" is from an excerpt of "Some Specimen Cases" where Whitman writes about several wounded soldiers he is visiting.  During 1863 Whitman served as a visitor to the wounded, both Confederate and Union, in the hospitals around Washington.  I'll talk more about this later in a series of posts on Whitman's biography.  For the purposes of this discussion, I think it is enough to say that Whitman was devoted to what he saw as his duty and his contribution to the war effort.  Even though he was a strong pro-Union man and abolitionist, this devotion went beyond that.  His caring for soldiers from the South and the North prove this.

Like "A Night Battle," there is a fair amount of text before Rorem's excerpt.  Like last time, I'll begin where Rorem begins and then paraphrase the beginning of the entry.  You can read the whole of Whitman's entry here.

Specimen Case
...Poor youth, so handsome, athletic, with profuse shining hair.  One time as I sat looking at him while he lay asleep, he suddenly, without the least start, awaken'd, open'd his eyes, gave me a long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier--one long, clear, silent look--a slight sigh--then turn'd back and went into his doze again.  Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hover'd near.

Whitman begins this entry by describing his subject, a young Irish man named Thomas Haley of Company M, 4th New York cavalry.  He tells us that Haley came to the U.S. expressly to enlist and fight.

In her book, Whitman and the Irish, Joann P. Krieg says that Haley's motive for immigration was not the norm among other Irish fighters.  "Approximately a third of the 140,000 Irish who served in the Civil War were from the New York area," she says.  Krieg goes on to say that unlike many of their comrades, the Irish's motivation to fight was not related to slavery.  In fact, many of them were sympathetic to the South's position.  However, that was overridden by their devotion to their new country and "the idea of the union of states." (pg. 117).

According to the roster of the 4th New York Cavalry (pg. 1113),

HEALY, THOMAS.--Age, 22years.  Enlisted January 28, 1863 at New York; mustered in as a private, Company M, February 13, 1863, to serve three years; died from wounds received in action, June 14, 1863, at Washington, D.C.

 For the sake of consistency and clarity, I will continue to use Whitman's spelling of Pvt. Haley's name.   There are any number of reasons for the difference in spelling from it being incorrect on the roster to Whitman getting the information wrong.

One note on dates: The entry on the cavalry roster says that Pvt. Haley "died from wounds received in action, June 14, 1863, at Washington D.C."  Judging from the dated entry in Speciman Days, this is the date the Private was wounded, not the date he died.  Whitman dates his Specimen Days entry June 18.  In it he says, "I saw Tom when first brought here, three days since..."  This would mean that Pvt. Haley was wounded on June 14 and arrived at the hospital the following day, which would be a reasonable assumption as he was most likely wounded in the second battle of Winchester.

Whitman's description of the wounds Haley suffered say that he was shot through the lung and was laid in the hospital bed naked from the waist up.  Due to the Private being heavily sedated, Whitman's interaction with Haley was probably minimal.  I have to believe that Whitman did have at least one conversation with him because of the facts written in the entry (his motivation for coming to the U.S., lack of friends, etc), but Whitman still calls himself a stranger leading me to think there was not much interaction.  Despite that, Whitman developed an attachment to the soldier--he calls him Tom at one point--and I think he is somewhat in awe of him, of the spirit to come here to fight, his bravery and his hanging on to life for so long.

As Whitman is in awe of Pvt. Haley, I am in awe of the text Rorem chose to set.  It is a pivot point in the entry.  Whitman goes from talking about Haley's wounds and his situation, to a more direct recollection.  When I think of this scene, Whitman sitting at the Private's bedside, it's vivid and in color.  It's evening, the light is low and the ward is quiet.  There is a smell of medicine and lurking just underneath, the smell of death. It's a smell that is at once sweet and sour, and lingers in your nostrils years after you are exposed to it.  The odor is heavy and you can feel it rushing into your nose as you breathe.  Pvt. Haley is aware of his situation, and that look he gives Whitman is most likely his last.  He breathes a sigh of gratitude that Whitman is there as a friend in the end, then turns and goes back to sleep.  A woman told me once about the night her husband died.  He had been bed ridden the whole week of his death and had been asleep or barely conscious that whole time.  The only time he looked at anything, it was something he saw floating above his bed, something he kept trying to grab.  The night he died, she was in the room with the family.  Just before he died, he woke up, looked at his wife with clear eyes, held her gaze for a few moments, then quietly passed away.

Whitman doesn't say that Haley died after that "long, clear, silent look," but this text brings that widow's story to mind.  To me, everything about the text is quiet and subdued with a sense of reverence for the dying soldier's life and circumstances.  It is a very powerful moment packed into a few lines.

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