Title: About "Reuben's Last Wish."
Author: Stephanie Blalock
Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2017.
Whitman Archive ID: anc.02085
"Reuben's Last Wish" is one of several stories Whitman published with a temperance theme in the 1840s. The narrator of "Reuben's Last Wish" explains that he has based the story of Reuben and his father, Franklin Slade, on details he learned at a temperance meeting that took place in the schoolhouse of a country village. Franklin Slade is a farmer who drinks too much and his intemperance has embarrassed his family and caused them a series of financial problems. In one of his drunken rages, Slade had injured his oldest son. Likewise, when he and his younger son were several miles from home, the elder Slade had too much to drink and, as a result, was unable to get the two of them home. Slade and Reuben were out in the cold rain, and Reuben became an invalid because he never entirely recovered from that night. At the time of his death, young Reuben looks at his father and points to a blank space for a signature on a temperance pledge printed on a piece of paper with a blue silk border.1 The tale is one of two temperance stories by Whitman—the other being "The Reformed"—in which a child's final wish is to see a family member converted to the temperance cause.2
Narratives like the one on which "Reuben's Last Wish" is supposedly based were often shared at temperance "experience meetings." Experience meetings were important parts of Washington temperance societies' compassionate approach to persuading the drunkard to reform and join the temperance cause.3 Washington temperance societies, which were named after George Washington, were part of the Washingtonian temperance movement. This social reform movement was incredibly popular in New York in the early 1840s when Whitman wrote short stories like "Reuben's Last Wish," "The Child's Champion," and "The Reformed." Whitman mentioned the Washingtonian societies by name at the beginning of his temperance novel Franklin Evans and even reported on a Washingtonian temperance parade and an experience meeting he attended for the New York Aurora in 1842.4
"Reuben's Last Wish" was published in the New York Washingtonian, a temperance weekly, on May 21, 1842. As Thomas Brasher has observed, the first page of the newspaper lists the date as May 2, 1842, but the remainder of the pages include temperance articles about events that happened after May 2. The second page of the newspaper prints the date as May 21, 1842.5 Anson Herrick and John F. Ropes published the New York Washingtonian; they had also founded the New York Aurora, a two-penny daily that printed news items and works from American writers. Whitman edited the Aurora from February 1, 1842 to April 30, 1842. Some three weeks after the end of his editorship, "Reuben's Last Wish" appeared in the New York Washingtonian, then edited by James Burns. Burns would later edit The Washingtonian and Organ, another temperance paper that published Whitman's novel fragment "The Madman" on January 28, 1843.6 A writer for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that Burns was "an able and devoted friend and champion of the cause" and that the [New York] Washingtonian offered reports "of all the temperance meetings throughout the week, and a summary of general and local intelligence."7
Both "Reuben's Last Wish" and "The Madman" were unknown to twentieth-century literary critics until their rediscovery by prominent Whitman scholar Emory Holloway in 1956. Holloway announced both finds in the January 1956 issue of American Literature.8 No reprints of "Reuben's Last Wish" have been discovered in periodicals. Whitman did not choose to include the story in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (1882), a volume in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories.
1. For a more detailed plot summary, see Patrick McGuire, "Reuben's Last Wish (1841)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 586–587. [back]
2. Locating the scene of the conversion from drunkenness to sobriety by or within the bed of a young child was common in temperance literature at the time of Whitman's writing. For an analysis of the role of children in scenes of temperance conversion, see Karen Sanchez-Eppler, "Temperance in the Bed of a Child," in Dependent States: The Child's Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 69–100. [back]
3. Glenn Hendler, "Bloated Bodies and Sober Sentiments: Masculinity in 1840s Temperance Narratives," in Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture, ed. Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 127. [back]
5. See Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 110–111 n1. [back]
6. "The Washingtonian," Brother Jonathan, June 4, 1842, 158. [back]
7. "The Washingtonian," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 24, 1842, . [back]
8. See Emory Holloway, "More Temperance Tales by Whitman," American Literature 27 (January 1956): 577–578. [back]