From Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose
A previous Story of the Week selection, “Wild Frank’s Return,” introduced readers to the relatively unknown short stories (and the only novel) by Walt Whitman, all written during the 1840s when he was in his twenties. Among the numerous pieces of fiction he published during this period, “One Wicked Impulse!” particularly stands out, if only because he reprinted—and revised—this story more than any of the others.
“One Wicked Impulse!” first appeared in 1845 as “Revenge and Requital: A Tale of a Murderer Escaped” in the Democratic Review; the story then reappeared later that year in the New York Weekly News and the following year, with minor changes, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. When Whitman included it in Specimen Days & Collect four decades later, he not only changed the title but also replaced the overlong final section with a more ambiguous and appropriate two-sentence paragraph. The following summary of the original ending contains “spoilers”; readers may wish to read the rest of this introduction after finishing the story, which is presented here in its revised version.
As Thomas Brasher writes in the 1963 edition of Whitman’s collected writings, the denouement of the earlier versions is “overly sentimental and melodramatic [and] turns the story into propaganda for the anti-hanging cause.” In the original story, young Philip Marsh, having escaped punishment for murdering the lawyer who had swindled him and insulted his sister, redeems himself by caring for victims of a cholera epidemic raging through New York City. He encounters two orphan brothers living in deplorable conditions in a basement and discovers that they are the sons of the man he had killed. The older boy is suffering from cholera and Marsh, as his “crowning act of recompense,” nurses the lad back to health before falling victim to cholera himself. On his deathbed, he bequeaths all his property to the two orphans. Whitman concludes, “Some of my readers may, perhaps, think that he ought to have been hung at the time of his crime. I must be pardoned if I think differently.”
“One Wicked Impulse!” enjoyed an odd and brief renaissance when it was reprinted in the January 1954 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and was the source later that year for the second episode of the third and final season of the series Your Favorite Story, with a teleplay by Arthur Fitz-Richard—which may have been the first-ever television adaptation of a work by Walt Whitman. The film for the episode has since been lost.
* * *That section of Nassau street which runs into the great mart of New York brokers and stock-jobbers, has for a long time been much occupied by practitioners of the law. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
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