Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Reuben's Last Wish" (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 was published on 21 May 1842, in the Washingtonian. For publication information, see Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction.

This temperance story is openly didactic. Whitman announces in the first paragraph that the story "may haply teach a moral and plant a seed of wholesome instruction" (110). The story is told by a narrator who heard it directly from Frank Slade at a temperance meeting. This narrative ploy is a compromise between Whitman's usual omniscience and the technique used in "Bervance: or, Father and Son" (1841).

Frank Slade is a good man, but he drinks too much, and his drinking has caused some economic hardship and humiliation for him and his family. Slade's sickly son, Reuben, arranges for his mother to embroider a blue border around an unsigned temperance pledge. As death approaches the boy, he holds out to his father the unsigned pledge and dies pointing to the line his father should sign.

Though the story is sentimental, Whitman's prose has a carefulness perhaps unparalleled in all his fiction. A rhythmic string in one paragraph, for example, may echo a rhythmic string in other paragraphs. In line with the sentimentality, the effect of the prose is almost precious at times.

While not as cruel as the many unhappy fathers in Whitman's stories—"Bervance," for example—Frank Slade regains happiness. Also, this tale is thematically related to "The Child's Champion" (1841) in that a man's love for a boy leads to the man's reformation.

Reynolds reads "Reuben" as a typical example of the sensationalism of temperance writings of the time. Kaplan asserts that Whitman borrowed the child's name from "Roger Malvin's Burial" (1832), by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Bibliography

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

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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