Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Little Jane" (1842)
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 and "The Death of Wind-Foot" initially appeared as embedded tales in Whitman's temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842). It appeared separately with its title in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 7 December 1846. For publication history and revisions, see Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction.

A young fellow, Mike, is riotously drinking with his friends. An elder brother comes to warn him that their little sister, Jane, is nearing death. Mike scoffs that for three years now such warnings have taken him from his partying, and she is still alive. The elder brother goes home alone, and Mike returns to the tavern, but his heart is laden with guilt. At home, little Jane dispenses keepsakes to her parents and siblings. The last one is reserved for Mike; it is a religious story for children, which Jane's mother had given her. Finally, Mike comes home and the children's stern father wishes him barred from Jane's sickbed. But the little girl summons Mike and, with her dying breath, gives him the religious storybook. Mike thereafter is a reformed man.

This temperance tale easily parallels "Reuben's Last Wish" (1842), in which an intemperate father reforms when he is given an embroidered pledge as the last act of his dying son.

As a story, "Little Jane" is slight, but it contains some typical themes of Whitman's fiction: tension between father and son, enmity between brothers, reformation of a drunkard through a child's act. Also, Whitman quite openly expresses some interesting ideas about death and children. For example, "Children . . . increase in beauty as their illness deepens" and "a solemn kind of loveliness . . . surrounds a sick child" (198).

The story has received little critical attention.

Bibliography

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


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