Title: About "The Fireman's Dream: With the Story of His Strange Companion. A Tale of Fantasie."
Author: Stephanie Blalock
Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2017.
Whitman Archive ID: anc.02089
"The Fireman's Dream: With the Story of His Strange Companion. A Tale of Fantasie" was unknown until the early 1980s. While completing research for the two volumes of journalism that were published as part of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman,1 Herbert Bergman discovered this previously unknown story. He also found the poem "Tale of a Shirt: A Very Pathetic Ballad," which was signed "W." and might also be Whitman's work. The story, signed by Walter Whitman, and the poem were published in the Sunday Times and Noah's Weekly Messenger on March 31, 1844. This was the same year that Whitman published "Eris: A Spirit Record" (March 1844), "The Child and the Profligate" (published in October 1844, this was a revised version of Whitman's "The Child's Champion," first published in the New World on November 20, 1841), "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death" (May 1844), and "The Little Sleighers" (September 1844) in The Columbian Lady's and Gentlemen's Magazine.
E. G. Howard first established The Sunday Times in 1841, the year Whitman wrote his first short story, "Death in the School-Room. A Fact." The paper consisted of four pages and claimed a circulation of approximately 17,000.2 The Sunday Times was devoted to the publication of materials related to literature and current events.3 In the years leading up to the publication of "A Fireman's Dream," Whitman may have had an editorial connection to The Sunday Times. An article in The Sunday Times printed on March 30, 1851, stated that Whitman and William J. Snelling were editing the paper when Mordecai Manuel Noah become the editor and proprietor in July 1843, which is also around the time the paper's title was changed from the New York Sunday Times to The Sunday Times and Noah's Weekly Messenger.4 "The Fireman's Dream" and "Tale of a Shirt" were published in the paper less than a year later.
In "The Fireman's Dream," George Willis, a New York City fireman, is injured when a piece of the roof of a burning building falls on him, an incident in which George sustains a terrible head wound. Although his life is spared, he develops a fever and dreams that he murders a fireman from another company and, later, meets a Native American man who, in turn, tells George the story of his upbringing.5 The man describes himself as "white by education and Indian by birth." He had been found alone in the wilderness and adopted by the Boane family. Having established himself as the Boanes' son, he then proceeds to introduce Anthony Clark, the Boanes' nephew, admitting that "the name of the person is burnt in welcome characters of fire upon my soul."6 It is there that the story leaves off. Like "The Madman," "A Fireman's Dream" ends with the promise that the story is "to be continued," but no other issues of The Sunday Times or any other newspaper with the story's continuation have been located.7 Even so, the chapters that were printed in The Sunday Times make references to what seems to be an intense friendship between Anthony and the Boanes' adopted son, the narrator of the second chapter. Here, it is possible, as it is in other works of Whitman's short fiction, to see the beginnings of the male friendships or "adhesiveness" that the poet would later describe in the "Calamus" cluster in Leaves of Grass (1860).
The structure of "A Fireman's Dream" suggests another novel or longer work of serial fiction since, much like Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans, the chapters are preceded by epigraphs. George Willis, the fireman and protagonist of the tale, served New York City in a profession that was associated with the temperance movement and that Whitman himself admired. Whitman had previously highlighted the role of firemen in New York's temperance movement in the New York Aurora, when he wrote about their presence at a temperance parade for the paper.8 Whitman also begins to describe the Boanes' adopted son as a Native American character; other fiction in which Whitman presents or focuses on Native American characters includes "The Death of Wind-Foot" and "Arrow-Tip."
"A Fireman's Dream" was also reprinted in Bergman's collection of Whitman's journalism.9 No other reprints of the story have been discovered.
1. See Herbert Bergman, Douglas Noverr, and Edward Recchia, eds., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Journalism, vols. 1–2 (New York: Peter Lang, 1998 and 2003). [back]
2. "New York, Sunday Times and Noah's Weekly Messenger," in Geo. P. Rowell & Co's American Newspaper Directory (New York: Geo. P. Rowell & Co., 1872), 123. [back]
3. "New York, Sunday Times," in Geo. P. Rowell & Co's American Newspaper Directory (New York: Geo. P. Rowell & Co., 1869), 74. [back]
4. See Herbert Bergman, "A Hitherto Unknown Whitman Story and a Possible Early Poem," Walt Whitman Review 28.1 (March 1982): 6. [back]
5. Bergman, "A Hitherto Unknown Whitman Story and a Possible Early Poem," 6. [back]
7. Bergman, "A Hitherto Unknown Whitman Story and a Possible Early Poem," 6. [back]
9. See Bergman et al., The Journalism, 1:183. [back]