Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Short Fiction [1841-1848]
Author:
Cohen, Matt
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's roughly two dozen short stories and vignettes were initially published between 1841 and 1848 in news and literary papers. Whitman collected and edited nine of them for Specimen Days & Collect (1882). Many of the stories were republished, with slight alterations, during the years Whitman spent working on newspapers in New York City and Brooklyn. In style and theme the stories reflect the mass-market reading taste in the America of Whitman's youth; their relation to his later work has recently become a question of critical interest.

In many cases the stories were published under a pseudonym or anonymously, making exact identification of Whitman's authorship uncertain; there may still remain unidentified short works by Whitman. Nine of the short stories appeared first in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, beginning with "Death in the School Room (a Fact)" in August 1841. Columbian Magazine and The Aristidean also published many of Whitman's fictional efforts. The last known short story debut was "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul," published in June 1848 in the Union Magazine of Literature and Art. An excellent review of the complex publication history of Whitman's fiction is found in Thomas Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction.

To some extent one can ascertain the stylistic and thematic content of Whitman's short fiction from the story titles. The sensationalism of "Death in the School Room (a Fact)" and the pathos of "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death" (1844) reflect the popular taste in magazine fiction Whitman exploited in these early tales. Many of the stories, in tune with their contemporaries, concern death and dying, apparitions, and the conversion of guilty consciences. The short fiction also treats many of the often-debated reform issues of the day, including temperance and the disciplining of children. Some of the stories, such as "The Little Sleighers. A Sketch of a Winter Morning on the Battery" (1844) are mere vignettes, reminiscent of the snatches of city life listed in Whitman's later poetry. Others, like "The Child-Ghost; a Story of the Last Loyalist" (1842), show Whitman's early patriotism and enthusiasm for American democracy. 

Some of the stories contain autobiographical elements. "My Boys and Girls" (1844), critics agree, is a reminiscence about Whitman's many brothers and sisters. "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul" concerns a man who is forced by poverty out of the city into a rural teaching position—an experience Whitman had after the great fire of 1835 in New York City hindered his career as a printer there.

Whitman's short fiction is relatively little-studied. These stories show a journalist's sense of popular taste and reveal the early Whitman grappling with popular issues of the day. Early biographers such as Gay Wilson Allen use the stories to illustrate the progress of Whitman's adaptation to the literary marketplace of New York City, but criticize the lack of originality shown in the fiction. Paul Zweig's psychoanalytic approach sees in these stories a Whitman obsessed with his father and anxious about leaving his familial responsibilities behind. Critics continue to find the artistic gap between the early fiction and Leaves of Grass tantalizing, but recent scholarly work forgoes aesthetic judgments and attempts to show the connections between Whitman and his political and artistic contemporaries. Despite Whitman's pervasively symptomatic fictional style and subject matter, for example, he was being published in the Democratic Review along with the greatest American literary luminaries of his time. Several scholars have pointed out, for example, that Whitman borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne in his stories; all three published in the Democratic Review. David Reynolds has made the most systematic exploration of the connections between the early stories and the concerns of the later poetry. Reynolds and other recent Whitman students emphasize the tension shown in the early fiction (and poetry) between Whitman's economic need to publish and his desire to produce literature that would be considered artful by the standards of his day.

Ultimately, the stories speak not only to Whitman's early life and artistic development, but to the literary atmosphere in which he worked and lived. The short fiction has only been touched on by critics so far, and despite Whitman's dismissal of his early publications, they are an important piece of the aesthetic puzzle Whitman represents.

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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