Title: Reuben's Last Wish
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Walter Whitman]
Date: May 21, 1842
Whitman Archive ID: per.00324
Source: New York Washingtonian, May 21, 1842: [1–2]. Transcribed from digital images of a rare original issue held at the New York Historical Society. Three lines of print are illegible in the digital image, because of a fold in the newspaper. This portion of the text has been supplied from Walt Whitman, The Early Poems and the Fiction, ed. Thomas L. Brasher (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 110–114, and appears in brackets below.
Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock and Nicole Gray
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Reuben's Last Wish.1
BY WALTER WHITMAN.
IF the reader supposes that I am going to tell a story full of plot, interest, and excitement, let him peruse no farther than these two or three lines—for he will be disappointed. A simple tale—a narration not half so strange as people frequently see exemplified in their ordinary walks—is all I have to offer. Yet, as the greatest and profoundest truths are often most plain to the senses of men—in the same resemblance, my "Reuben" may haply teach a moral and plant a seed of wholesome instruction.
Not many weeks since, I happened to be in a country village, sixty miles, more or less, to the north of our great new world metropolis, New York. Towards sundown, I heard from the keeper of the inn where I was staying, that there was to be a temperance lecture in the place that night.2 The scene of the meeting was the school house; and having no other means of employing my time, I determined to attend.
At the appointed hour, I did so. The lecture itself was rather a prosy affair, but fortunately short; when it concluded, several persons, apparently residents thereabout, rose and made remarks, partly advice, and partly transcripts of facts which had come under their observation.3 One of the speakers, a man considerably advanced in life, I listened to with much interest. After the exercises were over, I took occasion to introduce myself, and converse for some time with this man; and upon what I heard him say in the public meeting—the particulars he furnished me at our private interview—and, also, the additional facts I gathered from the people of the place, the subsequent day—I have based the narrative which follows.
Franklin Slade, a handsome, healthy American farmer, possessed, at the age of thirty years, a comfortable estate, a fair reputation, a tolerably well filled purse—and could boast that he owed no debts which he was not able to pay on the instant. He had a prudent, good tempered wife, and two children, sons, one eight years old and the other three.
Through one of the thousand painted snares, which ministers of sin ever stand ready to tempt frailty withal, Slade, about this period, fell into a habit of tippling.4 At first, he would indulge himself but rarely, and that to a limited degree; but the fatal taste grew upon him, and in the course of years, the man was a drunkard, habitual and confirmed.
Franklin Slade, a bloated, red faced fellow, at the age of forty years, had his estate mortgaged for half its value—no man cared for his good will—his purse held not a dollar—and creditors insulted him daily.5 The once ruddy cheek of his wife was withered and pale from much sorrow; and her eye had lost its accustomed brightness. His eldest son, Slade had struck in a fit of drunken passion; the boy was high tempered—he left his father's house—shipped as a sailor to some far distant port—and thenceforward they never heard of him again. Little Reuben, the other son, was an invalid, and, (the bitter truth may as well be told,) an invalid through his father's wretched sensuality. Some time previous, the child being with Slade several miles away, the farmer [drank so deeply, that he soon] felt in no condition to [get home. Reuben was kept out the whole night—] a cold, rainy one. [He was naturally delicate, and] the exposure produced an effect on him from which he never recovered.
There is something very solemn in the sickness of children. The ashiness, and the moisture on the brow, and the film over the eye balls—what man can look upon the sight, and not feel his heart awed within him? Children, I have noticed too, increase in beauty as their illness deepens. The angels, it may be, are already vesting them with the garments they shall wear in the Pleasant Land.6
Slade, to do him justice, was deeply grieved that the fruits of his folly fell thus upon the innocent Reuben, whom he loved much. Yet his infatuation had rooted so deeply, that he desisted in no respect from his dissolute practices. He scoffed at the efforts of the temperance advocates, who were becoming numerous and successful in the town—as they occasionally strove to bring him to their faith, and besought him to sign the pledge. His son very often joined his voice for the same purpose; entreaties and arguments, however, were alike futile.
Visiting, whenever his strength permitted, the meetings of the Temperance people, and reading and talking frequently upon the subject, Reuben before long entered with much enthusiasm into the new movement. He was an intelligent lad—and that he had seen what an evil thing drunkenness was, may well be imagined from the facts already given.
"I would," said the child one day to his mother, "I would have this paper bordered prettily with silk, and a fine ribbon bow at the top."
He held in his hand a Temperance pledge, with a picture at the top, and a blank space at the bottom for the names of signers.
"You are whimsical, my dear," said the matron, as she took the paper; "why do you desire so needless a thing done?"
"I hardly know myself," answered he, "yet please do it, mother. Ask me not why—let it be a whim."
And he smiled faintly.
And the sickening thought came over the woman's soul, that ere long she would probably not have the pleasant trouble of listening to the poor fellow's vagaries. She stepped hastily from the room, weeping.
In a day or two the Temperance pledge was edged tastily with a border of blue silk, and at each end, a piece of ribbon of the same color. The child was pleased: he took it and put it aside.
Days, months rolled on. The dwelling of Slade was a substantial old farm-house, a pleasant place, in the rear of which stretched a large garden. As it was now the season of advanced spring, the trees began to bud out and bloom there—the flowers put forth their beautiful tints—and the grass donned its darkest green. Birds sang there too—the robin, and the black bird, and the fanciful bob-o-link.7
In the middle of the garden was a fine, grassy patch, shaded by a stupendous tree: leaning against the trunk of the tree had been built a long, wide, rustic seat. It was very fair, that spot—dreamy, warm, and free from annoyance of any kind.
Reuben, frequently walking here among the flowers and shrubs, would admire this grass plot, and stop, and resting himself on the seat, would remain a long hour enjoying the delight of the scene—not such delight as children are generally fond of, romping, and playing, and laughing—but a noiseless, motionless delight, in keeping with the place.
Still the days rolled on—and Reuben grew no better, but worse. Physicians seemed of little benefit. The only method of producing a favorable effect upon his spirits—and that was
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One notion of the sick boy—though an odd one, they acquiesced in it—was to have a kind of couch made for him; and when he was too weak for walking about, to have it carried in the garden, on the favorite grass plot, that he might rest on it there.
For a time they kept somebody by him while he lay thus, lest his illness might take a fatal turn.—As, however, nothing of that kind occurredoccured, and he lingered day after day without alteration, they relaxed somewhat from having a watcher by his garden bed. Now and then they would leave him, though not long—for a mother's affection is to her child like a needle to its magnet—though it may vibrate aside a little on occasions, it ever settles back again, truly and constantly.
Reuben, indeed, preferred being alone. He would get them to bring him large bunches of flowers, roses, and the fragrant carnation, and the delicate lily—which he would arrange fancifully about him: then, when he grew tired of such simple pastime, he would sink back, and lie long, long minutes, gazing on the bright sky above, and watching the changes of the clouds as they melted from tint to tint, and changed from form to form.
It grew at length to be, that the very birds, that had their nests thereabout, or sought fruit from the neighboring trees, became accustomed to the presence of Reuben, and hopped down upon his couch, and would rest upon his extended hand. They sometimes sat upon the branches over him, and would sing blithely and long—which was very sweet to the little invalid.
One morning it happened that the child fell asleep while he lay alone upon his bed in the garden. And while he slept, he dreamed a beautiful dream. He thought that he, after passing, he could not tell how, for a great way through the air, landed at last on the borders of a fair country, where he wandered about for some time. The place was more delightful than ever entered the imagination of man, with fadeless verdure, and bright day, and summer eternal. By and by he entered a city, thronged with people, such as it charmed his eyes to behold—all clothed in raiment like fleecy clouds, and each with a glittering star upon his forehead. Here he was accosted by a Being, even more splendid than the others, and told in tones of soft music, that he should not be sick any more as on earth, but be taken to the presence of the Great King. Then he was conducted by the Being, who led the way, holding his hand, through many bright avenues and shining halls—and at last ushered into a mighty space, whose limits the gazer's eye could not scan, filled with millions of the winged ones—and in the midst a throne, whence light flashed like double lightning.
And then the sleeper awoke.
Several persons were standing around him. One, the village doctor, had apparently been holding his wrist—for he let it fall as soon as Reuben opened his eyes. The boy felt strangely faint, yet he smiled as he saw his parents, and briefly told them his vision. His mother was sobbing aloud.
"My son," she cried, in uncontrollable agony; "my son! you die!"
And the father bowed him low, as a tree by the tempest—and thick tears rippled between the fingers which he held before his eyes.8 O, it is a fearful thing to see a man in desperate grief!
Reuben comprehended the truth; else why that cloud—that dark consciousness shadowing his soul? He lay drowsily; a few drops of sweat started upon his forehead, and he began to grow insensible to perception or feeling of any kind. It was a state something resembling sleep, yet different from it—it was without pain—it was DEATH.
For what moved the child thus uneasily, and sped [his eyes from one to another? With some effort he turned himself, raised his] arm to his pillow, and [drew] something from underneath it, he unrolled a paper edged with silk, of the hue of the clouds overhead.
All was the silence of the grave. The dying boy slowly lifted the tremulous forefinger of his right hand, as he held the document in his left—that finger quivered for a moment in the air—the eyes of the child, now becoming glassy with death damp, were fixedly cast toward his father's face; he smiled pleasantly—and as an indistinct gurgle sounded from his throat, the uplifted finger calmly settled downward, and rested, pointing upon the blank space at the bottom of the Temperance pledge.9
And so he passed away.
When the solemnity of the scene, and the impressiveness of the closing incident, which for a while awed them motionless and silent, allowed other influences to act, they looked, and saw Reuben lying before them a cold corpse. His finger was pointed still. A gentle look lingered upon his face; the perfume of flowers filled the air; and from the western sky came a ray of light, left by the departing sun, investing the spot, as it were, with a halo of glory.
1. "Reuben's Last Wish" and another fiction work, "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: see Emory Holloway, "More Temperance Tales by Whitman," American Literature 27 (January 1956): 577–578. For more information on the publication of "Reuben's Last Wish," see "About 'Reuben's Last Wish.'" [back]
2. Temperance societies often held lectures, meetings, and parades to promote the temperance cause. The Washington temperance societies, part of the Washingtonian temperance movement, were popular in New York in the early 1840s when Whitman wrote "Reuben's Last Wish." He mentioned the Washingtonian societies by name at the beginning of his short novel Franklin Evans. Whitman also wrote several other short stories with temperance themes, including "Wild Frank's Return," "The Reformed," "The Child's Champion," "The Love of the Four Students," and "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death." For more on Whitman's interest in the Washingtonians, see Jennifer A. Hynes, "Temperance Movement," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 709–711. [back]
3. As Glenn Hendler has explained, listening to narratives like the remarks and advice on temperance described here, which were often shared at "experience meetings," was an important part of the Washington temperance societies' compassionate approach to persuading the drunkard to reform and join the temperance cause. Whitman reported on a Washingtonian temperance parade and an experience meeting for the New York Aurora, also in 1842. See "Temperance Among the Firemen!" (March 30, 1842) and "Scenes of Last Night" (April 1, 1842). For a history of the Washingtonian movement and a detailed explanation of their meetings, see 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), 125–148. [back]
4. Tippling refers to drinking alcohol habitually. [back]
5. In temperance narratives and at temperance lectures, those who drank alcohol were typically described as red-faced and bloated. See Hendler, 132–134. [back]
6. Whitman reused the last three sentences of this paragraph, beginning "The ashiness, and the moisture on the brow, and the film over the eye balls," in "The Reformed," a short story he published in The New York Sun nearly seven months later, on November 17, 1842. [back]
7. A bob-o-link is a kind of blackbird; male birds have a straw-colored patch of feathers on their heads. [back]