Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul, The" (1848)
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 autobiographical piece, more exemplum than short story, first appeared in the Union Magazine of Literature and Art, June 1848.

The story is told broadly. The Dean family suffered severe financial loss from the New York fire of 1835. The widow Dean overcomes such hardships and cheerfully raises her two boys, David, who is sickly, and Archibald, who is temperamentally uneven. Like the poet in "Lingave's Temptation," Archie knows his talents, but bristles under the injustice of his poverty. He takes an unwanted position as a teacher in a country school and writes letters of despair to his loving mother. Country living, however, sweetens Archie's disposition; he comes to admire the simplicity of the country folk around him.

Archie hears of an old spinster whose family had long ago lost its wealth. Resolved to regain the family farm, she had worked endlessly and eventually bought back the farm in time for her father to enjoy it in his last years. Archie sees the spinster's story as a rebuke of his own conduct and resolves to be more hard-working and less bitter. When his brother dies, Archie moves back with the widow. The last paragraph extols Archie's changes and warns against "morose habits" that spread bitterness over one's existence (Whitman 330).

The Shadow and the Light" is considered autobiographical for several reasons, chief of which is that Whitman, like Archie, was forced by poverty to take a country-school teaching position. Callow, however, has a different view: Archie's resolve at the making of his manhood parallels Whitman's own task of inventing himself in the years following this story.

Bibliography

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

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

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


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