For over a year now I’ve been making my way through Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, a collection of 248 prose fragments spanning two decades’ worth of “loafing, looking, hobbling, sitting, traveling . . .” around the country, in the woods near his New Jersey home, on the streets of Manhattan and Washington, through the inner cosmos of himself. My edition has an introduction by Leslie Jamison, who notes that Specimen Days “doesn’t sit easily in any genre” and that “much of the bliss of this book lives in its particulars. […] Whitman’s democratic awe is distinctive not simply for its range and its exuberance and its surprise, but for its willingness to dwell—to unfurl a pleasure fully.” In that spirit, I rarely read more than two or three entries at a sitting. Sometimes I’ll choose just one and read it a few times over, as though it were poetry, which it almost is.
From a specimen titled “Sea-Shore Fancies”: “There is a dream, a picture, that for years at intervals, (sometimes quite long ones, but surely again, in time,) has come noiselessly up before me, and I really believe, fiction as it is, has enter’d largely into my practical life—certainly into my writings, and shaped and color’d them. It is nothing more or less than a stretch of interminable white-brown sand, hard and smooth and broad, with the ocean perpetually, grandly, rolling in upon it, with slow-measured sweep, with rustle and hiss and foam, and many a thump as of low bass drums.”
There isn’t any poetry in this issue of TLR, which is one reason why I’m inclined to dwell on a poet’s prose. Here is a gallery of dreams and pictures, fictions, though some sit more easily in the genre than others—genre-fealty having been the absolute least of our concerns when we gathered them, as we hope it will be yours when you read them. We strove (pace Leslie, pace Walt) for range and exuberance, for pleasures which unfurl toward fullness. Here are twenty-five trips to the secret beaches of as many writers’ minds.
For Whitman, “dreams and pictures” did not offer an escape from reality, but rather a confirmation of reality’s promise of being both inescapable and without limit. And I don’t know what any of this has to do with physics—except that really, of course, I do know. And so do you.