Walt Whitman, novelist?
Like Charles Dickens, poet, it doesn’t ring a bell. It’s simply true.
Even at the Walt Whitman House in Camden, N.J., the writer’s home for the last years of his life and one of the literary treasures of our area, curator Leo Blake says few Whitmanophiles ever mention their hero’s one novel—visitors not focused on his poetry usually turn out to be wrapped up in his journalism.
That’s what happens when your formulaic 1842 novel, written at age 23 for $75 and promoted as the product of “one of the best Novelists of this country,” has been out of print for most of its existence. (The last edition arrived 40 years ago.)
Now Duke University Press has reissued the Long Island-born bard’s early temperance novel in a handsome paperback edition, with a wonderfully thorough scholarly introduction by co-editors Christopher Castiglia and Glenn Hendler of Pennsylvania State University and the University of Notre Dame, respectively.
Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate takes its callow title protagonist on a dissolution-by-the-numbers saga from bright young Long Island country boy to drunken loser on the streets of lower Manhattan. Before Franklin Evans gets on the wagon and takes the total-abstinence pledge, his overindulgent, backsliding descent to lowly barrooms and “the very verge of ruin” costs him—surprise—his job, his wife, his freedom and his former innocence.
It may also cost fans of Whitman, that celebrator of democracy, the city and the common man, some innocence of their own about the genial white-bearded man with floppy hat who looks to schoolchildren like Santa Claus on a day off.
Walt Whitman expressing anti-Irish nativism? Walt Whitman voicing vehement anti-urban denunciations?
It’s all here. And let’s be honest. The introduction by Castiglia and Hendler, spotting foreshadowings of Whitman’s appreciation of “fine young men” while acknowledging that the novel is “an incoherent and often aesthetically dissatisfying text,” is vastly more entertaining than Franklin Evans itself. Even Walter (as the young author was called on the first go-round) would probably drink to that.
Asked about Franklin Evans in 1888 by his regular interlocutor of later years, Horace Traubel, Whitman “vehemently disavowed” the book, the editors report.
“I doubt if there is a copy in existence,” Whitman declared in Traubel’s published account of their conversation. “I have none and have not had one for years; it was a pamphlet. Parke Godwin and another somebody (who was it?) came to see me about writing it. Their offer of cash payment was so tempting—I was so hard up at the time—that I set to work at once ardently on it (with the help of a bottle of port or what not).”
“In three days of constant work, I finished the book. Finished the book? Finished myself. It was damned rot—rot of the worst sort—not insincere, perhaps, but rot, nevertheless; 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.”
A fair assessment of Franklin Evans, if Whitman says so himself. First published as an extra edition of the New World newspaper, it nonetheless sold 20,000 copies, making it Whitman’s most popular work during his lifetime.
Of course, Whitman’s 1888 take seems not to have been the first time Walt—“O Captain, my Captain!”—reviewed his own novel. (We know that he also anonymously reviewed his poetic masterwork, “Leaves of Grass.”)
According to the editors and other Whitman scholars, old Walt, ages before amazon.com popularized the practice in our time, appears to have reviewed Franklin Evans favorably in the New York Sun on publication day: “It would not be amiss for every youth, whether he be of city or of country, to read this book, and receive a warning from some of its incidents.”
Castiglia and Hendler warn us not to take Whitman’s late disavowal of Franklin Evans, or the temperance theme it expressed, too “uncritically.” As they point out, Whitman had a habit of denying lots of things, such as the critic John Addington Symonds’ 1890 interpretation of “Leaves of Grass” as homoerotic, that many others found true.
Whitman, in fact, republished Franklin Evans in the Brooklyn Eagle four years after its initial release, when he became editor of that paper.
Did he miss his calling as novelist? Literary scholars have thought not—even Van Wyck Brooks long ago dismissed the book as offering “scarcely a line or thought that suggested in any way an original mind.”
On the evidence of Franklin Evans, we can thank our lucky stars that Walt Whitman, novelist, did not give us a cosmos.