Title: About "My Boys and Girls"
Author: Stephanie Blalock
Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2017.
Whitman Archive ID: anc.02095
Whitman's "My Boys and Girls" is a brief sketch that first appeared in The Rover: A Weekly Magazine of Tales, Poetry, and Engravings, Also Sketches of Travel, History, and Biography in March or April 1844.1 "My Boys and Girls" may have been written in the mid-1830s, and it may be, in part, autobiographical. The speaker in the tale is a bachelor who thinks of a number of the children in his life as his own. He describes the personalities of the children and uses the occasion to meditate on youth and age, pointing out that one way of "warding off all that is unenviable in old age" is to stay young at heart. He writes of his melancholy thoughts about the children's future, a future marked by the loss of innocence and "dim phantoms of Evil standing about with nets and temptations."2 He then recollects a child who has died and the sadness of the summer burial with the scent of apple-blossoms.3 The link Whitman establishes between the burial of a child and the scent of flowers is similar to the description of the custom of putting flowers on the corpse of a dead child in "The Little Sleighers," another brief sketch that was published in The Columbian Magazine in September 1844. This custom is also evident at the end of Whitman's "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death" (May 1844), when "an idle boy" leans over young Kate's grave and drops "the bruised fragments" of a flower.4 Both "The Little Sleighers" and "Dumb Kate" were published in the same year as "My Boys and Girls," and "Dumb Kate" was printed in The Columbian Magazine just two months after "My Boys and Girls" was published in The Rover.5
"My Boys and Girls" is believed to have an autobiographical basis because the names of some of the bachelor narrator's "children" and their relative ages correspond with Whitman's own family. Here, Whitman seems to indicate that he considered his siblings to be like his own "children," including his sisters Mary and Louisa, and his brothers, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson (Jeff).6 Whitman mentions that, at the time of the sketch, Mary is fourteen years old, which suggests a possible date of composition of 1835. There are other children mentioned in the story, but they are designated only by their initials, which makes them difficult if not impossible to identify with certainty.7 Even though this story focuses on his siblings, Whitman avoids mentioning Jesse, his only older brother, as well as Edward, the youngest Whitman, both of whom showed signs of mental disorders.8
When Whitman's sketch appeared in The Rover, the magazine was published weekly and featured short stories, poetry, and engravings.9 The Rover's editors were Seba Smith, an early political humorist, and Lawrence Labree, who wrote columns for the magazine on topics such as originality and plagiarism. Labree also contributed anonymously to a number of New York periodicals before an endowment from a relative enabled him to establish his own publication: The New York Illustrated Magazine.10
"My Boys and Girls" seems to be the only piece of Whitman's short fiction that first appeared in The Rover, and there are no known reprints in nineteenth-century periodicals. However, The Rover did reprint "The Death of Wind-Foot" from The American Review in the June 21, 1845, issue of the magazine. "My Boys and Girls" was published in the same year that Whitman's "The Child and the Profligate" (revised from "The Child's Champion") and "Eris; A Spirit Record" appeared in The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine.
Whitman did not choose to include the story in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories.
1. Because issues of The Rover do not include a publication date, there is some disagreement about when "My Boys and Girls" was printed. ProQuest's American Periodical Series database indicates a publication date of March 27, 1844 for Whitman's story even though that issue also includes the poem "Angels" by C.D. Stuart, which is dated "April, 1844." Thomas Brasher offers a publication date of April 20, 1844. See Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 248n1. Because the exact date of publication remains uncertain, The Walt Whitman Archive suggests March or April 1844—between March 27 and April 20, 1844—as the likely date of publication of "My Boys and Girls" in The Rover. [back]
3. For further discussion of the plot of "My Boys and Girls," see Patrick McGuire, "My Boys and Girls (1844)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), 442. [back]
5. Whitman addresses similar themes of the death of children or young people in several additional short stories: see also "Little Jane," The Death of Wind-Foot," "The Boy-Lover," and "Reuben's Last Wish." [back]
6. Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 248 n1. Hereafter, EPF. [back]
7. Brasher, EPF, 249 n1. [back]
8. For a more detailed account of Whitman's relationship with his siblings, see Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price's introduction to Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1984). [back]
9. Frank Luther Mott, "Later Weeklies," in A History of American Magazines 1741–1850 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), 365–366. [back]
10. Kent Ljungquist, "A Further note on Lawrence Labree," The Edgar Allan Poe Review 10.2 (Fall 2009): 124. [back]