Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Half-Breed, The" (1845)
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.

Whitman's novella "The Half-Breed: A Tale of the Western Frontier" was first published in The Aristidean, March 1845, as "Arrow-Tip" and reprinted with its current title in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1–6, 8, 9 June 1846.

"The Half-Breed" is Whitman's second-longest piece of fiction; only the novel Franklin Evans (1842) is longer. Structurally, the novella shows some skill. Its nine chapters quietly build toward the climax, and much of the later action is dependent on character traits established early.

His characters may be improbable, but Whitman strives for some depth, especially in his depictions of Native Americans, whom he seems to take special care in humanizing. Arrow-Tip's teasing sense of humor leads to the confrontation that is his undoing. Accused first of theft and then murder, Arrow-Tip is as silent as Jesus, even as he is hanged. Boddo, the half-breed, is the story's villain, but he is evil because society has made him evil; ostracism has made him antisocial and vengeful. Folsom sees Arrow-Tip as anticipating Whitman's "friendly and flowing savage" in "Song of Myself " (section 39), and William Scheick uses Boddo's physical and moral deformities as evidence of Whitman's strong opposition to miscegenation. In that light, the Native American of "The Fireman's Dream" (1844) may be viewed as Boddo's precursor.

"The Half-Breed," like the original version of "One Wicked Impulse!" (1845) may have been written as an implicit attack on capital punishment, although David Reynolds sees the story merely as sensationalism.

Whitman used the story to inaugurate a regular front-page literary feature in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Bibliography

Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

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

Scheik, William J. "Whitman's Grotesque Half-Breed." Walt Whitman Review 23 (1977): 133–136.

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


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