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Why Whitman Gave Up Fiction
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2. Why Whitman Gave
Up Fiction

Between August 1841 and June 1848, Walter Whitman published twenty-three short stories and a temperance novel that he subsequently described as “damned rot—rot of the worst sort—not insincere perhaps, but rot, nevertheless” (EPF 124 n. 1). Shortly after its publication in November 1842 as Franklin Evans or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times, Whitman's novel sold over 20,000 copies as a softcover pamphlet. It was commissioned and distributed by the New World under the editorship of Park Benjamin, who was apparently inclined to forgive his enemies for the sake of a sale; Whitman, an ex-employee, had recently savaged him in print as a fraud and a foreigner.[1] As for the 20,000 copies selling at twelve and a half cents each, certainly no single edition of Leaves of Grass approached the size of this readership before Whitman's death in 1892. And it is likely that all the editions of Leaves of Grass combined did not sell 20,000 copies during Whitman's lifetime. Whatever the financial arrangements—Whitman later said that he had received one hundred and twenty-five dollars for writing Franklin Evans, seventy-five dollars “cash down” and an additional fifty dollars two or three weeks later because the book sold so well—had Whitman wished merely to be a popular writer of fiction, he was on his way to success by the end of 1842. Moreover, eight of his short stories had been published in the Democratic Review, the most prestigious American literary magazine of the day. (The Review published work by Hawthorne, Poe, Whittier, Longfellow, Lowell, and Bryant, among others.)[2]


True, the Review is unlikely to have paid Whitman very much for such stories as “Wild Frank's Return,” “Bervance: or, Father and Son,” or “The Child-Ghost; a Story of the Last Loyalist”—fast-paced melodramas which James Russell Lowell once characterized as “à la Hawthorne.”[3] On January 9, 1843, for example, Sophia Hawthorne observed that “The Democratic Review is so poor now that it can only offer twenty dollars for an article of what length soever … and besides it is sadly dilatory about payment.”[4] As the Review's premier short story writer, Hawthorne undoubtedly commanded considerably higher prices than did Whitman, who tried unsuccessfully to sell “The Angel of Tears” to the Boston Miscellany of Literature and Fashion for eight dollars, in June 1842. Several months later this story of fratricide and repentance, complete with supernatural machinery, appeared in the Review. Perhaps the Review paid Whitman less than the eight dollars he had been hoping to get for it in Boston.[5] But I shall be assuming that financial considerations alone could not have caused Whitman to abandon fiction. Fiction writing, however poorly paid, was more lucrative than the writing of nonnarrative, experimental poetry, to which he eventually turned. Rather, I shall be arguing that the psychological urgency of these slippery fictions was incompatible with the inner serenity he was attempting to cultivate. Talking to Horace Traubel in 1888, more than four decades later, the very memory of this obsessive project, as exemplified by Franklin Evans, rekindled his rage. Whitman abandoned fiction primarily, I believe, because he was not yet ready to claim the unconventional sexual desires that his narratives had begun, furtively, to uncover. Grounded in an overarching vision of dysfunctional family life, these stories unsettled Whitman on a variety of fronts. As self-representations, they were imperfect. As guides for living, they were mainly ineffectual. Yet they emerged out of a powerful need to redefine gendered morality, even if these “queer” fictions were the children of an imagination, and a sexual identity, still in search of a stylistic home.[6]

Some of the commentary on Whitman's fiction stresses its awfulness; some of the psychoanalytic criticism stresses its obsessiveness.[7] In certain respects, the fiction is awful and awfully obsessive, in its need to expose and correct patriarchal abuses of power: whether, as in “The Last Loyalist,” the patriarch is King George and the cowardly child-abuser who supports his corrosive practices; or whether, as in “Wild Frank's Return,” the patriarch is a simple Long Island farmer who tragically mismanages his “domestic government” and who invests his eldest son “with the powers of second in command” (EPF 62). The story's passionate,

liberty-loving hero, “Wild Frank,” refusing to submit to father and brother, is forced to flee. But this fiction is also uncannily compelling, teachable (many students like it), and surprisingly rich in its variations on the organizing abuse-of-patriarchal-power theme. If we grant that Whitman's stories are rushed and painfully earnest, they still command considerable interest for their value as social history and even greater interest as quirky documents in the history of his unsettled consciousness.

Whitman, as we shall see, racializes this antipatriarchal fiction with some persistence. Although he associates himself with the imperial project that organizes national manhood around the construction of racialized and gendered otherness, he is even more powerfully identified with those enraged others who threaten white men. Sporadic acts of violence fascinate him, yet the only woman who commits a “crime” in these stories is the ex-slave Margaret, one of the many women scorned in Franklin Evans. Margaret murders to preserve her marriage and her victim is the white woman who is her erotic rival, rather than Evans, the man who betrays her. There is a sense, then, in which the light-skinned Margaret murders because she aspires to whiteness, which is associated in the novel with domesticity and with middle-class norms of erotic fidelity. Nevertheless, Whitman's sympathy with Margaret's rebellion against those norms fragments the structure of his narrative, undermining its official racial binaries. There is wisdom in her unwisdom. Enraged Indians, too, refuse to vanish from Whitman's fictionalized landscape of desire, and as we might expect, he is both fascinated and repelled by their cruelty. My point, then, is not that Whitman dispenses with racialized and gendered stereo-types but that he begins to inhabit them. In so do-ing, he derationalizes himself.

However identified he may be with enraged, racialized victims of either gender, in rescripting national manhood Whitman is primarily concerned with abuses of power by white, native-born American men. As representatives of the dominant culture, they are driven by economic greed and introduce the competitive tensions of the marketplace into white family life, which they chronically disrupt. Yet traditional, father-centered white family life has already been disrupted before most of these plots are set in motion, for the situation that captured Whitman's deepest attention is the following, in which race is elided and whiteness assumed as the norm. A poor widowed mother depends on her only child, an adolescent son, for emotional and financial support. There are no happy memories of the dead father. The story of the failure of love between men is then told from the point of view of a materially and emotionally

impoverished son who must find his way in an indifferent or actively hostile masculine world that seems determined to thwart his desire for happiness. In variations on this theme, traditional masculine occupations are associated with the desire to dominate others; material greed is associated with moral corruption; male-male rivalry at home and in the marketplace leads to male-male victimization in both public and private life.

This tale of the perils young men face in a society dominated by self-interest is based on the assumption that mothers, however weakened by their lack of money-making power, are potentially if not actually calming influences. Consequently, the greatest male-male violence erupts in families where no mother is present. In “Bervance: or, Father and Son,” for example, a widower deliberately drives his son mad; in “The Last Loyalist,” an abusive uncle beats his motherless ward to death; in “A Legend of Life and Love,” a dying grandfather attempts to blight the lives of his two beautiful grandsons by endowing them with his own suspicion of “natural feelings.” In “The Angel of Tears,” the story of a latter-day Cain and Abel, we encounter neither Adam nor Eve; the plot depends instead on an “Almighty” and his ambiguously gendered angel-emissaries to rescue “the imprisoned fratricide.” But there is no human or supernatural presence to teach brotherly love in “Wild Frank's Return,” where a mother who plays favorites is unable to temper her husband's harshness. “Oh, it had been a sad mistake of the farmer,” Whitman explains, “that he did not teach his children to love one another … sweet affection, gentle forbearance, and brotherly faith, were almost unknown among them” (EPF 64). Interestingly, Whitman's novelette, The Half-Breed: A Tale of the Western Frontier, violates most of the patterns I am describing. In this early fiction, “situated on one of the upper branches of the Mississippi,” an Irish refugee-adventurer turned priest sets out to redeem his hateful and “passionate” half-breed son, whom he first viewed as a “monstrous abortion” (EPF 272). However, the story allows us to feel little sympathy for the son, who is genuinely vengeful. Instead, Whitman asks us to sympathize with his victims, who include members of both races. Unlike the marriage of a luxuriantly-locked Indian maiden and a luxuriantly-bearded trapper subsequently idealized in “Song of Myself,” the pseudo-marriage of Father Luke and his hot-blooded Indian lover has led to moral and physical deformity. Despite the fact that “in the West, all men are comrades” (EPF 257), the demonized bad son Boddo—a thief, a liar, a hunchback, and a half-breed—exists almost beyond the pale of human affection. To be sure, it could be

argued that Father Luke is not fully white because he is an Irishman, and furthermore that this good but ineffectual priest functions as a mother, if we accept the notion that mothers nurture and fathers beat or cheat. Racial ambiguity aligned with Roman Catholicism on the frontier thus has the power to trouble gender.[8] But it takes a lot to do it. Sometimes a cheating is a beating, as in “One Wicked Impulse,” a tale which asks the question, “When is patricide justified?” As these descriptions may suggest, sometimes the wicked patriarch is an uncle or a guardian, rather than a biological father.

A classic example of Whitman's generationally coded abuse-of-power theme, which also presents a poor widow and her (one is tempted to say) suicidally helpful son, is “Death in the School-Room (A Fact).” So far as is known, this contribution to the contemporary discipline-in-the-schools debate was Whitman's first published fiction when it appeared in the Democratic Review in August 1841.[9] “Death in the School-Room” describes the brutality of a schoolmaster who falsely accuses a thirteen-year-old boy of being a thief. In fact the boy, Tim, has an unusually vivid conscience; he “would not steal,—hardly to save [himself] from starving” (EPF 56). An only child who suffers from a mysterious, congenital malady, “Tim's pleasant disposition had made him many friends in the village.” One of these friends, young farmer Jones, frequently presents him with surreptitious gifts of food; these small gifts embarrass Tim's mother, who is deeply ashamed of her poverty. Jones is not a wealthy man, but rather a “young farmer … who, with his elder brother, work'd a large farm in the neighborhood on shares.” This elder brother is “a parsimonious, high-tempered man;” he “had often said that Tim was an idle fellow, and ought not to be help'd because he did not work.” Since both Tim's mother and his benefactor prefer the cover of darkness, the boy feels doubly obligated not to reveal to his teacher and classmates that he and his mother have been the objects of petty charity. Unfortunately, however, on the night in question, Tim is seen struggling under his load of a bag of potatoes while an actual theft is being committed from another neighbor's more luscious garden. Much of this background information about the theft itself is presented retrospectively and awkwardly. Initially, Whitman concentrates on the monstrous schoolmaster, Lugare. “He was the terror of the little world he ruled so despotically,” we are informed. “Punishment he seemed to delight in” (EPF 58).

When Lugare questions Tim in front of the entire class,

The boy look'd as though he would faint. But the unmerciful teacher, confident of having brought to light a criminal, and exulting in the idea of the severe

chastisement he should now be justified in inflicting, kept working himself up to a still greater and greater degree of passion. In the meantime, the child seem'd hardly to know what to do with himself. His tongue cleav'd to the roof of his mouth. Either he was very much frighten'd, or he was actually unwell.

“Speak, I say!” again thunder'd Lugare; and his hand, grasping his ratan, tower'd above his head in a very significant manner.

“I hardly can, sir,” said the poor fellow faintly. His voice was husky and thick. “I will tell you some—some other time. Please let me go to my seat—I a'n't well.” (EPF 57)

Tim's Billy Budd–like inability to speak when questioned by the vicious schoolteacher spells his doom, not because Lugare flogs him to death, but because Tim's mysterious, congenital malady causes his heart to stop beating during the hour that Lugare gives him to confess. When the hour is up, Tim is found slumped over his desk; Lugare thinks he is pretending to be asleep. Narrative time seems to stop, as Whitman, a former schoolmaster, lingers with loving horror on Lugare's sadism, and then on his utter humiliation by Tim, an apparently powerless person:

Quick and fast, blow follow'd blow. Without waiting to see the effect of the first cut, the brutal wretch plied his instrument of torture first on one side of the boy's back, and then on the other, and only stopped at the end of two or three minutes from very weariness. But still Tim show'd no signs of motion; and as Lugare, provoked at his torpidity, jerk'd away one of the child's arms, on which he had been leaning over the desk, his head dropp'd down on the board with a dull sound, and his face lay turn'd up and exposed to view. When Lugare saw it, he stood like one transfix'd by a basilisk. His countenance turn'd to a leaden whiteness; the ratan dropp'd from his grasp; and his eyes, stretch'd wide open, glared as at some monstrous spectacle of horror and death. The sweat started in great globules seemingly from every pore in his face; his skinny lips contracted, and show'd his teeth; and when he at length stretch'd forth his arm, and with the end of one of his fingers touch'd the child's cheek, each limb quiver'd like the tongue of a snake; and his strength seemed as though it would momentarily fail him. The boy was dead. He had probably been so for some time, for his eyes were turn'd up, and his body was quite cold. Death was in the school-room, and Lugare had been flogging A CORPSE. (EPF 59–60)

If, as David Leverenz has suggested, buried fears of male rivalry structured the literary imagination of manhood in the American Renaissance, perhaps some of the enduring fascination of Whitman's brutal tales emerges from the fact that, in many of them, buried fears of male rivalry are not all that buried. Take “The Child's Champion,” for example, which was published in the New World, in November 1841. Surely it exemplifies

Leverenz's belief that “in very different ways, American Renaissance writers try to disorient and convert their readers, especially male readers, from one style of manhood to another.”[10] Subsequently retitled “The Child and the Profligate” and heavily revised, the story extends the covert sexual symbolism of “Death in the School-Room” to suggest, somewhat more overtly, an attempted homosexual rape. As the story opens, the abused child of the title, a bruised, thirteen-year-old apprentice, is being ruthlessly exploited by a farmer for whom he works overly long hours in the blazing sun. An only child, he parts tearfully from his mother, a poor widow. She works hard for a bare living and is unable to rescue him from his economic bondage. Tormented by helplessness, she urges him not to run away from “the hard rule” of his employer, “a soulless gold-worshipper” (EPF 70).

Following this pathetic opening scene, the boy passes a tavern. He lingers to listen and watch. In the barroom, heavy-drinking sailors are having a good time. The music, the black musician, the laughter and talk and dancing—all contribute to the apparent good cheer of male fellowship. Wistfully, Charles (as he is now called) looks in on this scene through an open casement window. Whitman explains,

But what excited the boy's attention more than any other object was an individual, seated on one of the benches opposite, who, though evidently enjoying the spree as much as if he were an old hand at such business, seem'd in every other particular to be far out of his element. His appearance was youthful. He might have been twenty-one or two years old. His countenance was intelligent, and had the air of city life and society. He was dress'd not gaudily, but in every respect fashionably; his coat being of the finest broadcloth, his linen delicate and spotless as snow, and his whole aspect that of one whose counterpart may now and then be seen upon the pave in Broadway of a fine afternoon. (EPF 71–72)

This superior young man, who sounds like a stand-in for Whitman himself, is the Profligate. Though he participates in smutty jests “by no means distinguish'd for their refinement or purity,” though he drinks too much, though he has no steady employment and has not been making the most of the superior educational opportunities afforded him by his family's class privilege (he could have been a physician), though he has been keeping low company, and though he is “a dissipated young man—a brawler,” known to the New York police, Langton is also a Christian gentleman with a good heart who is possessed of “a very respectable income” and a house “in a pleasant street on the west side of the city” (EPF 76–77).


An orphan himself, albeit a grown one, Langton has been living “without any steady purpose” or anyone “to attract him to his home.” He finds the purpose and the person in young Charles. After rescuing Charles from a vicious assault on his emerging manhood, Langton also rescues both Charles and Charles's mother from penury. Could there be a happier ending? In saving a child, he saves himself. Charity redeems the redeemer. Actually, however, the story has two endings. Following Charles's rescue from a drunken sailor who “seized the child with a grip of iron; he bent Charles half way over, and with the side of his heavy foot gave him a sharp and solid kick,” Langton and Charles, in the story's original New World version, spend the night together in the same bed.

It was now past midnight. The young man told Charles that on the morrow he would take steps to have him liberated from his servitude; for the present night, he said, it would perhaps be best for the boy to stay and share his bed at the inn; and little persuading did the child need to do so. As they retired to sleep, very pleasant thoughts filled the mind of the young man; thoughts of a worthy action performed; of unsullied affection; thoughts, too—newly awakened ones—of walking in a steadier and wiser path than formerly. All his imaginings seemed to be interwoven with the youth who lay by his side; he folded his arms around him, and while he slept, the boy's cheek rested on his bosom. Fair were those two creatures in their unconscious beauty—glorious, but yet how differently glorious! One of them was innocent and sinless of all wrong: the other—O to that other, what evil had not been present, either in action or to his desires! (EPF 76 n. 38)

This scene is blessed by an angel enabler, who legitimizes sun-drenched kisses, and Charles's unspecified “beautiful visions” while dreaming. Yet Whitman's extravagant allegory evades the subversive political implications of the new style of male bonding he is depicting:

No sound was heard but the slight breathing of those who slumbered there in each others arms; and the angel paused a moment, and smiled another and doubly sweet smile as he drank in the scene with his large soft eyes. Bending over again to the boy's lips, he touched them with a kiss, as the languid wind touches a flower. He seemed to be going now—and yet he lingered. Twice or thrice he bent over the brow of the young man—and went not. Now the angel was troubled; for he would have pressed the young man's forehead with a kiss, as he did the child's; but a spirit from the Pure Country, who touches anything tainted by evil thoughts, does it at the risk of having his breast pierced with pain, as with a barbed arrow. At that moment a very pale bright ray of sunlight darted through the window and settled on the young man's features. Then the beautiful spirit knew that permission was granted him: so he softly touched the young man's face with his, and silently and swiftly wafted himself away on the unseen air. (EPF 78 n. 43)


In revising this well-received story, which was also one of his personal favorites—it was the only story he further revised when he included it in Collect—Whitman eliminated the homoerotic idyll in the scene just quoted. In all versions, including those in the 1844 Columbian and the 1847 Eagle, Whitman asks, when Langton is first moved to intervene after the one-eyed sailor forces Charles to swallow a large glass of strong brandy,

What was there in the words which Charles had spoken that carried the mind of the young man back to former times—to a period when he was more pure and innocent than now? “My mother has often pray'd me not to drink!” Ah, how the mist of months roll'd aside, and presented to his soul's eye the picture of his mother, and a prayer of exactly similar purport! Why was it, too, that the young man's heart moved with a feeling of kindness toward the harshly treated child? (EPF 73–74)

But in the New World version, Whitman further asks,

Why was it that from the first moment of seeing him, the young man's heart had moved with a strange feeling of kindness toward the boy? He felt anxious to know more of him—he felt that he should love him. O, it is passing wondrous, how in the hurried walks of life and business, we meet with young beings, strangers, who seem to touch the fountains of our love, and draw forth their swelling waters. The wish to love and to be loved, which the forms of custom, and the engrossing anxiety for gain, so generally smother, will sometimes burst forth in spite of all obstacles; and, kindled by one, who, till the hour was unknown to us, will burn with a lovely and pure brightness. No scrap is this of sentimental fiction; ask your own heart, reader, and your own memory, for endorsement to its truth. (EPF 74 n. 23)

Already, then, in 1841 Whitman was writing himself into a vision of male bonding that was prophetic for him and, he dared to hope, for American literature. “Death in the School-Room” describes the collapse of a meaningful moral community; “The Child and the Profligate” describes another version of this collapse. In the former instance, the solution to the problem is nominally linked to educational reform; in the latter, to the temperance movement. Langton gives up drinking; Charles never drinks voluntarily. Implicitly, however, Whitman already functions as “The Child's Champion” in “Death in the School-Room,” though the specifically erotic component of his role is less pronounced. Drawing back from the gender-exclusive implications of this eroticism in revising his story, Whitman, even in the original New World version, carefully locates Langton years later as the head of a family of his own, shuddering “at the remembrance of his early dangers and his escapes.” As a married

man, he is able to sustain his friendship with Charles, which “grew not slack with time” (EPF 79).[11]

In Whitman's composite master narrative, then, social reform is linked to the spontaneous creation of a generationally coded city or country of friends. Consequently, his positive, functional model of family life, which excludes biological fathers, is less the mother-centered, middle-class home than an affective union between men that, whatever its other functions, must resolve the economic and vocational anxieties of the younger of the two. Finally, this master narrative begs the question of the role of women within it. As mothers, women are to benefit from the friendships of their sons. But they are also marginalized by the greater social, economic, and political power of the new man whose healing presence redefines the meaning of family life. This marginalization of women is especially clear in “The Child and the Profligate,” but even in “Death in the School-Room,” the emphasis is less on Tim's closeness to his widowed mother (at best she is a shadowy figure) than on the peculiar disadvantages under which the boy labors as a fatherless son. Within Whitman's paradigm, there is no possibility of reempowering the mother as mother. His poor widows never inherit a fortune, nor do they become housekeepers in middle-class families, nor do they set up cent shops or become teachers or journalists or novelists. Once impoverished, mothers never earn enough money to recoup their losses and are thus unable to defend their pathetic Tims or Charleys against cruel father-surrogates such as Lugare, the “soulless gold-worshipper,” or against the fluid-spilling one-eyed Sailor.[12] As weak havens in a heartless world, these women demand the care of their sons, rather than the other way around. Poverty eviscerates their maternal function. What Tim needs, then, is a father-surrogate such as the farmer who is strong enough to protect him against the Lugares produced by early industrial capitalism, those omnipresent loaded guns waiting to shoot down ineffectual young men. In Whitman's narrative, the farmer, however, is himself in bondage to his insensitive older brother, so that the only father-surrogate the story admits is the narrator, who, with his language-weapon, takes sadistic pleasure in his role as Lugare's flogger. Given the force of Whitman's language-whip, a misdirected gun such as Lugare does not stand a chance.

The combination of liquor, music, and sex that was so potent in unleashing violent passions in “The Child and the Profligate” proves equally irresistible in Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans.[13] As

a defense against these threats, he of course counsels abstinence, but he also counsels marriage. “I would advise every young man to marry as soon as possible, and have a home of his own,” Whitman's hero confides at the conclusion of the novel that bears his name. Franklin Evans remarks smugly,

Boarding-houses are no more patronized by me. The distaste I formed from them in my memorable search for quarters, when I first came to New York, was never entirely done away with. The comforts of a home are to be had in very few of these places; and I have often thought that the cheerless method of their accommodations drives many a young man to the barroom, or to some other place of public resort, whence the road to habits of intoxication is but too easy. Indeed, the thought has long been entertained by me, that this matter is not sufficiently appreciated. (EPF 236)

From time to time Evans acknowledges his character flaw, his want of “resolution,” but in general he scapegoats others, especially his former friend Colby, whom he blames for having introduced him to alcohol and to sexual entertainment in the musical saloons. In the course of this discussion, then, we will look a little more closely at the boarding houses patronized by Evans before his two marriages and before he inherits from a virtual stranger the modest fortune that rescues him from his problems, characterological and otherwise, at the story's end.[14]

An orphan who has been reared by an uncle to whom he has been apprenticed, the twenty-year-old Evans sums up his background as follows:

My father had been a mechanic, a carpenter; and died when I was some three or four years old only. My poor mother struggled on for a time—what few relations we had being too poor to assist us—and at the age of eleven, she had me apprenticed to a farmer on Long Island, my uncle. It may be imagined with what agony I heard, hardly twenty months after I went to live with my uncle, that the remaining parent had sickened and died also. …

I continued to labor hard, and fare so too; for my uncle was a poor man and his family was large. In the winters, as is customary in that part of the island, I attended school, and thus picked up a scanty kind of education. The teachers were, however, by no means overburthened with learning themselves; and my acquirements were not such as might make any one envious. (EPF 147)

After introducing a more extensive genealogy to motivate his departure from “an obscure country town,” Evans says nothing further about his somewhat kindly but impoverished uncle, his aunt, his cousins, or his dead father and mother, to say nothing of the few other relatives who

were too poor to help him. At the story's conclusion, however, a better-connected Evans remarks,

My country relations were not forgotten by me in my good fortune. The worthy uncle, who had kindly housed and fed me when I was quite too small to make him any repayment for that service, received in his old age the means to render his life more easy and happy. My cousins too, had no reason to be sorry for the goodwill which they had ever shown toward me. I was never the person to forget a friend, or leave unrequited a favor, when I had the payment of it in my power. (EPF 234–35)

Presumably his aunt shares in his uncle's good fortune, yet Evans's failure to include her in his list of beneficiaries is significant. Franklin Evans, as we shall see, is a lady-killer. He marries twice and is responsible for the deaths of both of his wives, together with the death of a third woman whom he perhaps wishes to marry. Strangely, though, Evans has a knack for rescuing distressed mothers. His eventual good fortune depends on this talent. Even in the opening chapters he has demonstrated it, or attempted to—thereby almost attracting the favorable attention of a model gentleman, “the Antiquary,” who turns out to be his great benefactor.

Arrived in Brooklyn from the country, Evans spends his first night away from “home” at an undisclosed location. The next morning, after breakfast, he takes the ferry to New York, buys a newspaper, and reads the ads. Feeling sorry for himself and feeling, too, that the world owes him if not a living then at least a room of his own, Evans is put off by the inflated language of the boarding house advertisements and further provoked to discover that some boasted there were “‘no children in the house.’” Although he rarely praises himself, Evans observes on a false note, “I loved the lively prattle of children, and was not annoyed as some people pretend to be, by their little frailties.” Consequently, he neurotically eliminates any place that excludes children and proceeds to investigate his shortlist.

The first place that I called at was in Cliff-street. A lean and vinegar-faced spinster came to the door, and upon my inquiring for the landlady, ushered me into the parlor, where in a minute or two I was accosted by that person-age. She was as solemn and sour as the spinster, and upon my mentioning my business, gave me to understand that she would be happy to conclude a bargain with me, but upon several conditions. I was not to stay out later than ten o'clock at night—I was to be down at prayers in the morning—I was never to come into the parlor except upon Sundays—and I was always to appear at table with a clean shirt and wristbands. I took my hat, and politely

informed the lady, that if I thought I should like her terms, I would call again. (EPF 149–50)

Not about to subject himself to strict supervision (and from a vinegar-faced woman at that), Evans moves on. In the next house, a sort of dormitory or “open attic” arrangement, the landlady has no pretensions to gentility and makes no attempt to control his manners or morals, but, Evans remarks, “I did not like the look of the woman, or the house. There was too little cleanliness in both; so I made the same remark at parting, as before.” For undetermined reasons, houses numbers three and four are unacceptable as well. Number five is eliminated because “all the boarders were men” and, Evans remarks genteelly, “I desired to obtain quarters where the society was enlivened with ladies.” At house number six, somewhat anticlimactically, Evans signs on, at three and a half dollars a week, for “a snug little room in the attic, exclusively for my own use,” after meeting the landlady—“an intelligent, rather well-bred woman, and the appearance of the furniture and floors quite cleanly.” Now all this makes some kind of sense as a temperance novel, except that before Evans can suffer any of the boarding house loneliness that supposedly leads to alcoholism, he seeks out his “gay” friend Colby, who agrees to spend the evening with him.[15] Furthermore, he gets an interesting lead on a promising job opportunity that same day, returns to dinner at his boarding house “with some twenty well-bred ladies and gentlemen,” and holds his own as to table manners, “though many of the observances were somewhat new to me, and one or two of my nearest neighbors, plainly saw, and felt amused, at my unsophisticated conduct in some respects; I believe I came off upon the whole, with tolerable credit” (EPF 152). His disintegrating country morals are another matter.

Four chapters later, Evans has had his first hangover, gotten a job, had a brief infatuation with a fashionable actress, gotten an even better job, and, under Colby's auspices, started on “the downward career of a drunkard” (EPF 159). He has also moved to a more expensive boarding house in a better neighborhood. When Evans loses his new job because he spends the night carousing with Colby and his set rather than delivering an urgent message for his employer, he is forced to find cheaper quarters. Here the full ludicrousness of Evans's critique of boarding houses emerges. Remember that Evans urges his young male readers to marry as soon as possible to escape the loneliness of boarding house life. The

rootlessness of boarding house life is presumed to precipitate alcoholism. In the case of Evans, however, boarding house life leads to marriage, which leads to guilt, which leads to alcoholism. For Evans, as it turns out, marries his landlady's daughter. He explains,

My landlady was a widow, with only one child, her daughter Mary. She was a modest, delicate, sweet girl, and before I had been in the house a week, I loved her. I do not choose to dwell upon the progress of our affection, for it was mutual. The widow knew nothing of my former intemperance—in fact, I had desisted during my residence with her, from any of my dissolute practices.

The self-centered Evans, who wants to enjoy all the comforts of home without being bothered by female-imposed responsibilities, is now fortunately situated:

Six months passed away. I had obtained employment soon after taking up my abode there, in a factory not far from the house; where, though I was forced to labor, and my remuneration was moderate, because I did not understand the business well at first, I was in a fair train for doing better, and getting higher wages. The widow grew sick. She was of the same delicate temperament which her daughter inherited from her, and in less than a fortnight from the commencement of her illness, she left the world for ever.

All to the well and good, of course, from Evans's point of view. Almost inconsolable in her grief, poor Mary turns to Evans for support, and he turns to her “as the only resource from utter friendliness” (EPF 173; italics mine).

What kind of woman would marry the seemingly irresolute yet secretly determined Evans? Mary, we are told, is industrious, prudent, affectionate. Although neither an heiress nor the possessor of a fashionable education, “she had a gentle, kindly heart; she had good temper; she had an inherent love of truth, which no temptation could seduce aside, and which she never failed to put in practice; she had charity, a disposition to look with an eye of excuse on the faults of her fellow-creatures, and aid them as far as she could in their poverty, and console them in their griefs.” But Mary, “a good woman, if ever God made one,” cannot earn a dime. Supposedly the marriage goes well for the young couple until Evans succumbs to the temptation to buy a lot and build a house on it. As Whitman's father appears to have done with some consistency, he loses the property and is forced to abandon the venture, which is mortgaged to the hilt.[16] Whitman/Evans adds, “I was half crazed with mortification and disappointment” (EPF 173–74). At this point, for comfort in his sorrows, Evans again turns to drink. Mary, who has known

nothing of his former “weakness,” is unable to cope. Isolated in his suffering, Evans continues to drink. His business goes from bad to worse and not long thereafter, the neglected and agonized Mary dies of a broken heart.

Crazed with guilt, Evans, after an unbelievable series of adventures, ends up in the South, in Virginia, partly on business and partly for pleasure. There, he marries his second wife, and again marriage proves disastrous to his self-esteem and fatal to his wife. The circumstances are as follows. Evans has settled into a comfortably dissolute life with a French-born planter called Bourne, who takes the position that slavery in the New World is a “merely nominal oppression” when compared to the “stern reality of starvation and despotism in the [Old]” (EPF 202). Whitman/Evans seems to endorse this view. The amiable Bourne then encourages Evans's desire to marry his Creole slave by offering to free her as a courtesy to his friend. Under the influence of alcohol, Evans weds the beautiful Margaret. He likes the fact that she needs “a defender and advocate—perhaps one whose word would be effectual,” as well as the fact that she has rebuffed the attentions of a lascivious overseer, using a farm tool to fell him “with a heavy blow” (EPF 205). Sober, he is horrified to discover that he has bound himself to a former bonds-woman and proceeds to treat her so callously that Margaret, now crazed with jealousy, contrives the murder of her blond-haired, blue-eyed, white, northern rival. Successful in her plot, Margaret pays a high price for revenge—losing her sanity, her beloved younger brother, whom she has corrupted, and her life. Boarding house life has, of course, nothing to do with Evans's second marriage, or with the marriage he might have liked to contract with the heartless flirt, Mrs. Conway, who is much less sympathetically portrayed than Whitman's passionate and, within the limits of her situation, powerful Creole.

When Whitman revised his temperance novel for republication in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846, he eliminated several of the more egregious digressions and condensed the episodes between Evans's break with his second employer, the munificent merchant Stephen Lee, and his departure for the South. He thereby eliminated Evans's first marriage and caused Lee to rehire Evans almost immediately after firing him. He further revised the novel so as to eliminate Evans's marriage to Margaret, though Margaret remains an important character, as does Bourne, whom Evans admires and seeks to emulate. In both versions, Lee dies quickly and fortuitously as soon as Evans returns to New York, making Evans the beneficiary of his considerable fortune. In both versions,

Evans ends up rich, healthy, and unencumbered by the “blessings” of home. “So, at an age which was hardly upon the middle verge of life,” he remarks smugly,

I found myself possessed of a comfortable property; and, as the term is “unincumbered” person—which means that I had no wife to love me—no children to please me, and be the recipients of my own affection, and no domestic hearth around which we might gather, as the center of joy and delight. My constitution, notwithstanding the heavy draughts made upon its powers by my habits of intemperance, might yet last me the appointed term of years, and without more than a moderate quantity of the physical ills that man is heir to. (EPF 232)

In all these changes, Whitman further emphasized the importance of male bonding, even eliminating the crucial episode in which Evans endears himself to the wealthy Lucy Marchion, when he saves her little girl from drowning. And he deemphasized the positive value of marriage. Far from demonstrating that boarding house life drives men to drink and that the comforts of home provide an effective barrier to alcohol, Franklin Evans demonstrates that there are no happy marriages. Stephen Lee's wife, for example, turns out to have been a drunkard whose neglect of their children has caused their death. In adopting Evans as his heir, Lee carries out the novel's deepest impulse, which is toward male bonding and the prior exclusion of women on which the perpetuity of male community depends. Perhaps that is why Evans, who is normally a pacific person, whatever his faults, attempts to strangle Colby. Colby, we remember, first introduced Evans to liquor and to women. In Franklin Evans, at least, the combination is fatal, not because it leads away from marriage but because it leads toward it.

In one of his Aurora essays, Whitman asserted that half the population of New York City lived in boarding houses. “English travellers sometimes characterise the Americans as a ‘trading, swapping, spitting race,’” he wrote. “Others again consider our most strongly marked features to be inquisitiveness, public vain glory, and love of dollars. If we were called upon to describe the universal Yankee nation in laconic terms, we should say, they are ‘a boarding people.’” In this 1842 Aurora essay, which antedates by a number of months the composition of Franklin Evans, Whitman observed somewhat plangently, “We have taken up quarters in all the various kinds [of boarding houses], and therefore ‘speak from experience.’”[17]

Speaking from experience, Whitman discovered in writing fiction the slippage between his desire to uphold the institution of the family,

whether patriarchal or matriarchal, and his more urgent need to celebrate, however obliquely, the love of comrades. In advising young men to marry as soon as possible, he was not really trying to rescue them from boarding house life, which, as the Aurora essay suggests, readily accommodated married couples, though he was certainly trying to rescue them from loneliness. In later years, he liked to deflect attention from his only full-length novel by claiming that he wrote it in three days of constant work “with the help of a bottle of port or what not,” adding, “It was not the business for me to be up to. I stopped right there: I never cut a chip off that kind of timber again.” But as Thomas L. Brasher notes, “Perhaps Whitman had forgotten that he had begun the publication of another temperance novel—The Madman—about two months after the appearance of Franklin Evans” (EPF 124–25 n. 1).

The Madman, of which only two short chapters survive (more may never have been written), was published in a New York temperance newspaper, the Washingtonian and Organ, in January 1843. The two extant chapters are exclusively concerned with a friendship between two sympathetically presented young men. “The Madman” is presumably a third character, as yet unknown to them, who violates their code of conduct, or one of the original characters transformed. When he stopped writing the novel, Whitman had not decided whether the two friends, Richard Arden and Pierre Barcoure, were to share equal status in the narrative, and he probably had not made up his mind as to the identity of the Madman. The more seductive of the two main characters—Whitman calls him a “strange and dreamy creature” (EPF 243)—is clearly modeled after Franklin Evans's Bourne and shares his French ancestry. Like Bourne, he has a freethinking immigrant father, but in this northern urban setting, his politics are more attractively portrayed. Bourne, after all, was a slaveholder, whereas Pierre Barcoure is “imbued with that fierce radicalism and contempt for religion which marked the old French revolution” (EPF 243). The less romantic of the two heroes, Arden, shares some of Franklin Evans's traits, such as his irresolution, his (Benjamin) Franklinesque desire to rise in the world, and his poverty. The two friends meet, amid the clatter of knives and forks, in a realistically depicted restaurant on upper Fulton Street, and by “The next week, they were on the footing of intimacy and familiarity” (EPF 242). So ends chapter one. In the very brief second chapter, Whitman explains,

So these two—Pierre and young Arden—became near and dear to one another.


Their friendship was not of that grosser kind which is rivetted by intimacy in scenes of dissipation. Many men in this great city of vice are banded together in a kind of companionship of vice, which they dignify by applying to it the word which stands second at the beginning of this paragraph. How vile a profanation of a holy term!

(To be continued.) (EPF 243)

And there the novel ends.

To conclude. In the early 1840s Whitman was not ready to develop homoerotic themes in fiction, though such themes increasingly dominated his literary imagination. He associated intemperance with the loss of conventional sexual and social identity, including whiteness, as Franklin Evans richly demonstrates. He also associated alcohol with day-dreams and “a species of imaginative mania” (EPF 220) whose structure of desire anticipates a poetics that includes male-homoerotic love. Whitman continued to publish short stories off and on until the spring of 1848, when he returned with his brother Jeff from New Orleans. But he never repeated the concentrated effort that ended with the collapse of The Madman in early 1843.

His shift toward poetry was not a sudden one. As he explains in “The Shadow and Light of a Young Man's Soul,” the last of his stories that can be effectively dated, “few great changes are” (EPF 330). Fiction writing continued to remain an option for Whitman in the mid-1840s and off and on for the rest of his life. In late June 1859, for example, after he had given up the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Times, when his financial fortunes were at a low ebb and when he was writing the Calamus sequence, he reminded himself, “It is now time to Stir first for Money enough to live and provide for M—To Stir—first write Stories, and get out of this Slough” (NUPM 1:405). So far as we know, those stories were never written, and “M—” has never been conclusively identified.[18] Though Whitman considered writing more stories after publishing the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 and may even have considered writing “Song of Myself” as a spiritual novel,[19] by the time he declared himself the “poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves” (in his famous notebook entry of about 1848) he had also reached the conviction that “Every soul has its own language” and that “Every soul has its own individual language, often unspoken” (NUPM 1:67, 65, 60). For Whitman, the soul's language was figurative and therefore untranslatable into what he understood as the more socially disciplined language of prose.[20]

In his fiction of the 1840s, Whitman was already beginning to write against the compulsory heterosexuality of the traditional love plot—the

aristocratic love plot, as he liked to call it subsequently in such poems as “Song of the Exposition,” when his discourse of class privilege was more pronounced. He stopped writing fiction when the conflict between his desire to uphold the heterosexual values of middle-class family life and his desire to undermine those values in print could no longer be ignored. Male bonding, as he was coming to understand it, exploded the domestic myths on which popular prose representations of well-regulated passion depended. Writing antipatriarchal poetry (in the main—I consider this multiply complicated issue further in subsequent chapters), Whitman needed a more individualized language in which, as he later explained to John Addington Symonds, he could let the “spirit impulse … rage” (Corr 5:73). Consequently, Whitman's projected New York romance of proud Antoinette, the unhappy prostitute, would have to remain unwritten (NUPM 1:401–2).[21] For while “the intellect… delights in detachment or boundary,” as Emerson remarked in a revised version of the lecture heard by Whitman in March 1842, six months before the publication of Franklin Evans,[22] in the formally fluid poetry he created in the 1850s Whitman could descend into an ecstatic world virtually devoid of limited human agency. In this sexually fluid world beyond gendered moral convention, the delight is in the hitherto forbidden attachment, as when

The cloth laps a first sweet eating and drinking, Laps life-swelling yolks. … laps ear of rose-corn, milky and just ripened; The white teeth stay, and the boss-tooth advances in darkness, And liquor is spilled on lips and bosoms by touching glasses, and the best liquor afterward.

(LG 1855, p. 108)

The true poet, “the man without impediment,” as Emerson called him, rejoices unambiguously in connection, which is perhaps why Whitman, writing to Emerson in 1856, claimed never to have found him.[23] In making this claim, he was not only following Emerson's lead—Emerson, too, looked for his true poet in vain—but also telling us something important about his imagination of himself as a democratic lover. In the next chapter, we will look further both at Whitman's need to turn himself into an erotic authority for modern times and at the internal and external impediments he encountered along the way.

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