Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate
Author:
Lulloff, William G.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman's temperance novel, Franklin Evans; or the Inebriate: A Tale of the Times, was originally published in the New World (2.10, Extra Series, November 1842: 1-31). Reprinted as an "off-print from the New World " (Brasher 336), the 1843 edition appeared under the title: Franklin Evans: Knowledge Is Power. The Merchant's Clerk, in New York; or the Career of a Young Man from the Country. A third printing of the novel appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during the period that Whitman served as that paper's editor (March 1846-January 1848). Serialized episodes appeared in the Eagle from 16-30 November 1846. For this edition not only did Whitman change the title but he also edited the novel, making major deletions. Whitman's new title for this publication was Fortunes of a Country-Boy; Incidents in Town—and His Adventures at the South. Whitman also disguised his authorship of the novel by attributing it to "J.R.S." (Brasher 125). His reason for assigning the novel to a pseudonymous author is unknown. In addition to making radical revisions of the latter portion of the novel, Whitman deleted the introduction, conclusion, and chapter mottoes, as well as several incidents and embedded tales. In 1929, the original New World version of Franklin Evans was published in the Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman and by Random House as a book with an introduction by Emory Holloway. 

In 1842 two advocates of the temperance movement, Park Benjamin and James Aldrich, asked Whitman to write a "short novel for a worthy cause" (Winwar 73). In May of 1888, in a conversation with Horace Traubel, Whitman recalled that the request to write the novel came from "Parke Godwin and another somebody" (Traubel 93); however, biographers attribute the request to Benjamin and Aldrich. Because Benjamin and Aldrich offered a down payment of 75 dollars and a follow-up payment of 50 dollars if the publication sold, and because Whitman was "so hard up at the time" (Traubel 93), he agreed to attempt the task. Whitman claims to have completed the novel in three days; however, a noted twentieth-century biographer questions whether he could have written 20,000 words per day even if he had been fortified with "gin cocktails" as he once claimed (Brasher 125). In order to assist and to speed up the writing of the novel, Whitman included some stories that he had previously written. Probably the stories of the Indian in chapter two; "Little Jane," in chapter 14; and possibly the allegorical dream in chapter 21 had been written previously. 

In the same 1888 conversation with Horace Traubel, Whitman called the novel "damned rot—rot of the worst sort" (Traubel 93). Contemporary biographers and critics seem to agree with Whitman's assessment. For example, Gay Wilson Allen calls Franklin Evans a "melodramatic maudlin story" (59). Miller considers it "inept as a temperance plea and worthless as fiction" (19). 

The temperance theme of the novel is apparent even in the first chapter, before the plot involving young Franklin Evans begins. As Evans sets out for New York, he and a companion enter a tavern. Evans has been acquainted with the tavern keeper prior to this meeting. He relates to readers that he can well remember when the tavern keeper's "eyes were not bleared" (Whitman, Evans 10). He adds that the tavern keeper now has "a face flushed with redness" and the appearance of a man "enfeebled by disease" (10). Evans draws the conclusion that alcoholic beverages have been the man's downfall. As the novel continues, Franklin Evans, as first person narrator, relates the story in which strong drink causes his downfall. Predictably, by the end of his narrative, Franklin Evans concludes that "total abstinence" is the only safe course for him to follow (236). 

Whitman's introduction to the novel sounds convincing. Of course, his journalistic experience helped him to write acceptable prose. By the time he came to write Franklin Evans, he had accumulated considerable experience in writing for newspapers, and Henry Seidel Canby says that Whitman was a "good journalist" (41). He was not, however, a fiction writer, even though Franklin Evans was advertised before publication as having been written by "one of the best Novelists of this country" (qtd. in Brasher 124). The avowed purpose of the novel was to "rescue Young Men from the demon of intemperance" (qtd. in Brasher 124). Although Whitman said that he "never cut a chip off that kind of timber again" (Traubel 93), he did start a second temperance novel, "The Madman." An opening chapter appeared in the New York Washingtonian and Organ on 28 January 1843. No additional chapters of the novel have survived. 

The novel Franklin Evans does demonstrate Whitman's powers of observation and attention to detail. He says in the introduction that the novel will stir the memories of his readers, for they will know that the happenings are real. Whether he had experienced the happenings or had merely heard about them, he renders the scenes with elements of realism. 

In the introduction to Franklin Evans Whitman writes that the novel "is not written for the critics but for the people" (5). His statement serves as a harbinger of the role he later sought for himself in society, to be the poet of the people.    William G. Lulloff Bibliography 

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

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

Canby, Henry Seidel. Walt Whitman: An American.Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943. 

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne, 1962. 

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906. 

Whitman, Walt. Franklin Evans. 1842. New York: Random House, 1929. 

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. Vol. 2. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921. 

Winwar, Frances. American Giant: Walt Whitman and His Times. New York: Harper, 1941. 


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