Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Richard Parker's Widow" (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 first appeared in The Aristidean in April 1845. For publication details, see Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction.

The story begins with the narrator and his friend on a tour of a London police station. There they see a pitiable woman. The friend supplies the narrator with details of her misfortune. Richard Parker was executed for mutiny. The woman is his widow, and she had tried desperately to get a stay of execution. When that failed, she tried in vain to see her husband before he died. In his last words, he denied his guilt, but accepted his death sentence so that order might be restored among British seamen. After the wife was then denied his remains, she climbed the wall of the cemetery and disinterred her husband's corpse. She kissed and embraced it in her grief; she intended to remove it from London. But the lord mayor learned of her plight and arranged a sage burial in Whitechapel churchyard. Later, she was duped out of a small fortune. Forty years later, when the narrator and his friend see her, she is in the habit of seeking charity.

Critics have noted that Whitman borrowed heavily for this story from the same source regarding the 1797 Nore mutiny that Herman Melville used for Billy Budd, Sailor (1924): Camden Pelham's Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1841). David Reynolds sees the widow's kisses as sensationalism bordering on necrophilia. Justin Kaplan notes that the mutiny, with Parker as leader, parallels Whitman's theme of son versus father: the hangman's noose here paralleling the rope around the rebellious son's wrist in "Wild Frank's Return" (1841). Gay Wilson Allen, however, sees in the story Whitman's ability to share the emotions of women.

Bibliography

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

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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