Specimen Days

Book Review by Willard Manus

Michael Cunningham follows up on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours with SPECIMEN DAYS, which is as much rooted in Walt Whitman as Hours was in Virginia Woolf. Whitman's poetry and presence turn up in all three of the novellas that comprise the new book; its title is also taken from one of Whitman's works.

The America that Cunningham investigates in SPECIMEN DAYS is anything but the America Whitman had such high praise and hopes for. The industrial revolution (dramatized in the first novella, In the Machine) crushes people under its iron heel, brutalizing those it doesn't kill. In The Children's Crusade 9/11 terrorism turns the citizenry into neurotic, violence-obsessed loonies. In Like Beauty, a sci-fi fable, one of the last human beings on earth teams up with an android to escape all-embracing totalitarianism.

Whitman, poet and proselytizer of the American Dream, would have been shaken to his roots had he known the extent of its eventual betrayal.

Picador, the publisher of SPECIMEN DAYS, has also released a companion volume, LEAVES FOR CREATIONS, a collection of Whitman's poetry and prose compiled by Cunninham.