Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Child and the Profligate, The" (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 important short story initially appeared under the title "The Child's Champion" in New World, 20 November 1841. After much revision, the story appeared with its present title in Columbian Magazine, October 1844. See Thomas L. Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction for publication particulars and revisions.

Thirteen-year-old Charley, the only child of a poor old widow, works for a greedy farmer. One evening, music lures Charley into a tavern, where a one-eyed seaman brutally tries to force the boy to drink brandy. A wealthy young man, Langton, who has been living a dissolute life, rescues Charley. Charley and his mother give purpose to the profligate's life, and as Langton saves them from their once-inescapable poverty, he is reformed.

The story's obvious didactic purpose is the reformation of a wastrel in contrast to the dissolution of the other characters. The vulnerability of the poor and the greed of Charley's employer are also part of its didacticism. Its temperance theme appears in other stories by Whitman, most notably his novel Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times (1842).

Moon has noted homoeroticism in the interaction between the seaman and young Charley, which Reynolds parallels to the interaction between Tim and Lugare in "Death in the School-Room" (1841). Moreover, Moon connects "Calamus" number 29 (1857) to elements of the story. A more gentle homoeroticism is evident, perhaps, in Charley's relationship with his rescuer, on whose bosom, in the earliest version of the story, Charley rests his cheek as they sleep through the night. But not all critics agree; Callow and Kaplan see the love between the boy and the man as devoid of any sexual content.

Bibliography

Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

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

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


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