Title: About "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death"
Author: Stephanie Blalock
Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2017.
Whitman Archive ID: anc.02096
"Dumb Kate.—An Early Death" was first published in The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine in May 1844. Kate, the story's protagonist, is a beautiful young woman, characterized as both harmless and helpless, as she has been unable to hear or speak since birth.1 Her parents own an old fashioned tavern operated out of an ancient house surrounded by trees in a rural New York village. One of the regular customers of the tavern is the son of a wealthy farmer, and this young man seduces the defenseless Kate and then moves to New York City, where his business dealings make him a man of fortune. Lonely and heartsick, Kate dies and is buried in a churchyard on a hill. In the ending paragraphs, a young boy tosses a "bruised flower" on her grave.2 The boy's gesture may be symbolic of both Kate's seduction and a young life lost too soon. For years afterward, Kate's story becomes the topic of conversation among local gossips when they pass the grave on Sundays.3
The setting of the tale, in a rural area, separated in time and place from the bustling city, reveals a sense of anti-urbanism that appeared in several pieces of Whitman's fiction, including "The Tomb-Blossoms" and his temperance novel Franklin Evans. In "Dumb Kate," Whitman characterizes the tavern as a place in which young women risk being seduced. This is certainly not the first time Whitman has portrayed the barroom as a space of sexual attraction, whether between Kate and her seducer or between male friends. Other fiction works that include temperance themes and present the barroom as a social environment conducive to the formation of romantic attachments and/or male friendships include Franklin Evans, the unfinished novel fragment "The Madman," and the short stories "The Child's Champion" and "The Love of the Four Students."
The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, edited by John Inman, a contributor to many periodicals himself, was intended to compete with Graham's Magazine and, like Graham's, it included poetry, book reviews, and largely sentimental prose. During the first two years of its run, at the time Whitman's story appeared, the magazine included a piece of music and a colored fashion plate in each number.4 Besides Whitman, other contributors to the magazine included Park Benjamin (who had helped found The New World), the temperance writer T. S. Arthur, and leading women writers including Lydia Maria Child and Catherine M. Sedgwick.5 In the opening number, the editor hailed the ability of the magazine to "unite the certain attractions of a popular author with the chances of an able but unknown candidate."6
In addition to "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death," The Columbian Magazine also published "The Child and the Profligate" (October 1844; a revised version of "The Child's Champion"), "Eris: A Spirit Record" (March 1844), and "The Little Sleighers" (September 1844).
Whitman reprinted "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death" himself in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat on July 13, 1846, while he was editing that paper. During his two-year editorship (1846–1848), Whitman published items about fiction in the Eagle, and he showed renewed interest in the fiction he had written just a few years earlier. He revised and reprinted Franklin Evans and thirteen of his own short fiction pieces—including "Dumb Kate"—in the paper.7
He also reprinted "Dumb Kate—An Early Death" under the shortened title of "Dumb Kate" in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short fiction.8 Several of Whitman's revisions to the original Columbian Magazine version of the story for publication in the Eagle (1846) and Collect (1882) are recorded in our footnotes. For a complete list of revisions to the language of the original text (1844) made or authorized by Whitman for publication in Collect, see Thomas L. Brasher's The Early Poems and the Fiction.9
2. Walter Whitman, "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death," The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine 1 (May 1844): 230–231. [back]
4. Frank Luther Mott, "The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine," in A History of American Magazines: 1741–1850, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 743–744. [back]
5. Ibid. [back]
6. John Inman, "Magazine Literature," The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine 1 (January 1844): 3. [back]
7. For more information about Whitman's editorship at The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat, see Dennis K. Renner, "Brooklyn Daily Eagle," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 79–80. As editor of the Eagle, Whitman also revised and reprinted "Wild Frank's Return" (May 8, 1846), "The Half-Breed; A Tale of the Western Frontier" (June 1–6 and 8–9, 1846; formerly "Arrow-Tip"), "A Legend of Life and Love" (June 11, 1846), "The Love of Eris.—A Spirit Record" (August 18, 1846; formerly "Eris; A Spirit Record"), "One Wicked Impulse! (A tale of a Murderer escaped.)" (September 7–9, 1846; formerly "Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped"), "Fortunes of a Country-Boy" (November 16–30, 1846; a significantly revised version of the temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times), "Little Jane" (December 7, 1846), three of the five parts of "Some Fact-Romances"(the second Fact-Romance as "The Old Black Widow" on November 12, 1846, the first Fact-Romance as "A Fact-Romance of Long Island" on December 16, 1846, and the fifth Fact-Romance as "An Incident on Long Island Forty Years Ago" on December 24, 1846), "The Child and the Profligate" (January 27–29, 1847; previously printed with the same title in the Columbian Magazine), "Death in the school room" (December 24, 1847; formerly "Death in the School-Room. A Fact"), and "The Boy-Lover" (January 4–5, 1848; previously printed with the same title in The American Review). Two of Whitman's stories were reprinted in the Eagle before he became the paper's editor in March 1846. Whitman's "The Death of Wind Foot" was reprinted as a work of serial fiction (August 29–30, 1845) about two months after the story appeared in The American Review in June 1845. "Shirval—A Tale of Jerusalem" was reprinted on January 22, 1846, ten months after it was first published in The Aristidean in March 1845. [back]
8. See Walt Whitman, "Dumb Kate," in Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 370–371. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "Dumb Kate." [back]
9. Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 251–253. [back]