Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Shirval: A Tale of Jerusalem" (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.

This short story appeared in The Aristidean, March 1845. Whitman revised the story for Specimen Days & Collect (1882), though he did not use it. For publication details and revisions see Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction.

In "Shirval" Whitman retells a story from the New Testament, Luke 7: 11–18. The characters, except for Jesus, are unnamed in Luke, but Whitman gives them names and adds the maiden Zar. Shirval is the young man who is raised from the dead. Unni is the widow and mother of Shirval, and Zar is Shirval's beloved.

Whitman avoids the name Jesus in his telling by using words like Being, Presence, Man of Wo, and Nazarine–the first three printed completely in capitals. Whitman's portrayal of Jesus emphasizes physical manifestations of the spiritual. The hearts of the crowd throb at "the nearness of an UNDEFINABLE PRESENCE, more than mortal" (294).

According to David Reynolds, Whitman's humanizing a tale from the Bible sets Whitman in line with progressive literary practices of his day. Whitman addresses that very issue in the story when he defines a function of literature: "It is the pen's prerogative to roll back the curtains of centuries . . . and make them live in fiction" (292).

Reynolds also notes that "Shirval" is a lighter, happier tale than Whitman's other fiction. However, it involves much of the same thematic interest in death and grief, only here Whitman begins in gloom–"O Earth! huge tomb-yard of humanity" (292)–and ends in awe: widow, son, and maiden "knelt upon the ground and bent their faces on the earth-worn sandals of the MAN OF WO" (295).

Noteworthy also is Whitman's use of parallelism in an emotional apostrophe addressed to the Nazarene. The cadences are biblical and not unlike those of the poetry.

Bibliography

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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