Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Death in the School-Room (a Fact)" (1841)
Author:
McGuire, Patrick
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This short story, Whitman's first published fiction, appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, August 1841. Whitman reprinted it more than any other of his stories. For publication information see William White and G.R. Thompson; see also Thomas L. Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction.

The story involves Lugare, a sadistic teacher, and sickly Tim Barker, only child of a widow, who is falsely accused of theft. When he begins beating Tim, who is apparently asleep, Lugare learns that he is really beating a corpse. The sentimentality of "Death in the School-Room" underscores Whitman's opposition to corporal punishment. This opposition to violence connects it with his fictional indictments of capital punishment, "One Wicked Impulse!" (1845) and "The Half-Breed: A Tale of the Western Frontier" (1845).

Reynolds observes that the "terrible pain" that "lurks" in some of the poetry first enters Whitman's work in this story (52–53). Along with "Wild Frank's Return" (1841) and "Bervance: or, Father and Son" (1841), the story suggests in Whitman a compulsive interest in cruel authority figures, especially fathers. The beating in this story has been tied to the seaman's forcefulness in "The Child and the Profligate" (1841), both resonating with the homoeroticism in Whitman's personality.

Bibliography

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

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

Thompson, G.R. "An Early Unrecorded Printing of Walt Whitman's 'Death in the School-Room.'" Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 67 (1973): 64–65.

White, William. "Two Citations: An Early Whitman Article and an Early Reprinting of 'Death in the School-Room.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5.1 (1987): 36–37.

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


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