Recursive Readings: Chaos, Curriculum, and Walt Whitman in “Specimen Days”

Karin H. deGravelles


In his 2005 postmodern novel “Specimen Days,” Michael Cunningham reads and re‐envisions
Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” through three different stories in different genres, time periods, and landscapes. Each story, however, involves a set of repeating details, including character names and attributes, locations, a curriculum (of one kind or another) of “Leaves of Grass,” and the pedagogical figure of Walt Whitman.

This article focuses on the process of reading and interpretation at work in Cunningham’s novel, modeled after Whitman’s own recursive processes in writing and editing “Leaves of Grass.”Poems, Whitman writes, “grow of circumstances, and are evolutionary” (1889/1973, p. 565). Whitman’s poems resist linearity and closure, employing contradiction as well as repetition: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)” (1891/1973, lines 1324‐1326). In “Specimen Days,” Cunningham also presents three visions of a non‐linear Whitman curriculum, often yielding strange and unpredictable results because of the poems’ resistance to fixed meanings. Cunningham’s recursive readings of Whitman through “Specimen Days” suggest possibilities for nonlinear interpretive practices and for viewing reading as a recursive process, a repeated search for meaning that in fact generates meaning in its iterations rather than finding it.

Full Text: