Friday, October 18, 2013

Wild Frank’s Return

Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
From Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose

Old Mill, Miller and Horse, 1843, oil on canvas by English-American artist Joshua Shaw. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
While a young man in his twenties, Walt Whitman worked for various newspapers in New York City and Brooklyn. During this decade, from about 1841 to 1848, he wrote two dozen short stories and sketches. (Since many were published anonymously or pseudonymously, there might be others that have not yet been identified.) He collected nine of the stories under the heading “Pieces in Early Youth” in his anthologies Specimen Days and Collect (1882) and Complete Prose Works (1892); his preface struck a somewhat apologetic note:
On jaunts over Long Island, as boy and young fellow, nearly half a century ago, I heard of, or came across in my own experience, characters, true occurrences, incidents, which I tried my ’prentice hand at recording—(I was then quite an “abolitionist” and advocate of the “temperance” and “anti-capital-punishment” causes)—and publish’d during occasional visits to New York city. . . . My serious wish were to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion—but to avoid the annoyance of their surreptitious issue, (as lately announced, from outsiders,) I have, with some qualms, tack’d them on here.
Readers who know of Whitman only through his poetry are in for a surprise; the stories are all sensationalistic pieces for a mass audience, written during a time when one of Whitman’s primary goals was merely to be published.

In his recent cultural biography Walt Whitman’s America, David S. Reynolds catalogs the themes, often involving “some kind of bloody, violent confrontation, usually between an adult authority figure and a male child or youth.” Throughout the tales, there are autobiographical hints, such as Whitman’s distaste for his previous job as a schoolteacher and his fraught relationships with his father and older brother. Many of the stories moralize against excessive drinking, also the subject of his only novel, Franklin Evans—which sold over 20,000 copies and which he later disowned as “damned rot” that he wrote in a matter of days “with the help of a bottle of port.” Reynolds regards the stories as a means of “purging inner demons. . . . Never again would violence or blood so dominate his writings.” A few years after his Whitman’s death, one scholar wrote that the short fiction was “chiefly interesting as proving how very neatly the young journalist could play, if need be, upon the flute of Edgar Allan Poe.”

“Wild Frank’s Return,” a macabre twist on the Prodigal Son story, combines several of these themes. When it appeared in November 1841, Whitman appended the following note:
The main incidents of this and another story, “Death in the School-Room,” contributed by the same writer to a preceding number of the Democratic Review, were of actual occurrence; and in the native town of the author, the relation of them often beguiles the farmer's winter-fireside.

*   *   *
As the sun, one August day some fifty years ago, had just pass’d the meridian of a country town in the eastern section of Long Island, a single traveler came up to the quaint low-roof’d village tavern, open’d its half-door, and enter’d the common room. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.