Title: Little Jane
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Walter Whitman]
Date: December 7, 1846
Whitman Archive ID: per.00343
Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat, December 7, 1846: . Transcribed from digital images of a microfilm reproduction of an original issue. The microfilm is held by the University of Iowa Libraries.
Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock and Nicole Gray
cropped image 1
LITTLE JANE.1—Lift up!" was ejaculated as a signal—and click! went the glasses in the hands of a party of tipsy men, drinking one night at the bar of one of the middling order of taverns.2 And many a wild gibe was uttered, and many a terrible blasphemy, and many an impure phrase sounded out the pollution of the hearts of those half-crazed creatures, as they tossed down their liquor, and made the walls echo with their uproar. The first and foremost in recklessness was a girlish-faced, fair-haired fellow of twenty-two or three years. They called him Mike. He seemed to be looked upon by the others as a sort of prompter, from whom they were to take cue. And if the brazen wickedness evinced by him in a hundred freaks and remarks to his companions, during their stay in that place, were any test of his capacity—there might hardly be one more fit to go forward as a guide on the road of destruction.
From the conversation of the party, it appeared that they had been spending the early part of the evening in a gambling house.
A second, third and fourth time were the glasses filled; and the effect thereof began to be perceived in a still higher degree of noise and loquacity among the revellers. One of the serving-men came in at this moment, and whispered the bar-keeper, who went out, and in a moment returned again.
"A person," he said, "wished to speak with Mr. Michael. He waited on the walk in front."
The individual whose name was mentioned, made his excuses to the others, telling them he would be back in a moment, and left the room. As he shut the door behind him, and stepped into the open air, he saw one of his brothers—his elder by eight or ten years—pacing to and fro with rapid and uneven steps. As the man turned in his walk, and the glare of the street lamp fell upon his face, the youth, half-benumbed as his senses were, was somewhat startled at its paleness and evident perturbation.
"Come with me!" said the elder brother, hurriedly, "the illness of our little Jane is worse, and I have been sent for you."
"Poh!" answered the young drunkard, very composedly, "is that all? I shall be home by-and-by."
And he turned back again.
"But brother she is worse than ever before.—Perhaps when you arrive she may be dead."
The tipsy one paused in his retreat, perhaps alarmed at the utterance of that dread word, which seldom fails to shoot a chill to the hearts of mortals. But he soon calmed himself, and waiving his hand to the other:
"Why, see" said he, "a score of times at least, have I been called away to the last sickness of our good little sister; and each time it proves to be nothing worse than some whim of the nurse or physician. Three years has the girl been able to live very heartily under her disease; and I'll be bound she'll stay on earth three years longer."
And as he concluded this wicked and most brutal reply, the speaker opened the door and went into the bar-room.—But in his intoxication, during the hour that followed, Mike was far from being at ease. At the end of that hour, the words "perhaps when you arrive she may be dead," were not effaced from his hearing yet, and he started for home. The elder brother had wended his way back in sorrow.
Let me go before the younger one, awhile, to a room in that home. A little girl lay there dying.—She was quite rational.3 She had been ill a long time; so it was no sudden thing for her parents, and her brethren and sisters, to be called for the witness of the death agony.
The girl was not what might be called beautiful. And yet, there is a solemn kind of loveliness that always surrounds a sick child. The sympathy for the weak and helpless sufferer, perhaps, increases it in our ideas. 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 sometimes fancied 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.4
Beside the nearest relatives of little Jane, standing round her bedside, was the family doctor. He had just laid her wrist down upon the coverlid, and the look he gave the mother, was a look in which there was no hope.
"My child!" she cried, in uncontrollable agony, "O! my child!"
And the father, and the sons and daughters, were bowed down in grief, and thick tears rippled between the fingers held before their eyes.5
Then there was silence awhile. During the hour just by-gone, Jane had, in her childish way, bestowed a little gift upon each of her kindred, as a remembrancer when she should be dead and buried in the grave. And there was one of these simple tokens which had not reached its destination. She held it in her hand now. It was a very small, much-thumbed book—a religious story for infants, given her by her mother when she had first learned to read.
While they were all keeping this solemn stillness—broken only by the suppressed sobs of those who stood and watched for the passing away of the girl's soul—a confusion of some one entering rudely and speaking in a turbulent voice, was heard in an adjoining apartment. Again the voice roughly sounded out; it was the voice of the drunkard Mike, and the father bade one of his sons go and quiet the intruder.
"If nought else will do," said he sternly, "put him forth by strength. We want no tipsy brawlers here, to disturb such a scene as this!"6
For what moved the sick girl thus uneasily on her pillow, and raised her neck, and motioned to her mother? She would that Mike should be brought to her side. And it was enjoined on him whom the father had bade to eject the noisy one, that he should tell Mike his sister's request, and beg him to come to her.
He came. The inebriate—his mind sobered by the deep solemnity of the scene—stood there, and leaned over to catch the last accents of one who, in ten minutes more, was to be with the spirits of heaven.
All was the silence of deepest night. The dying child held the young man's hand in one of hers; with the other, she slowly lifted the trifling memorial she had assigned especially for him, aloft in the air. Her arm shook—her eyes, now becoming glassy with the death-damps, were cast toward her brother's face.7 She smiled pleasantly, and as an indistinct gurgle came from her throat, the uplifted hand fell suddenly into the open palm of her brother's, depositing the tiny volume there. Little Jane was dead.8
From that night, the young man stepped no more in his wild courses, but was reformed.—Walter Whitman.9
1. This tale has a unique and complex publication history. A recently discovered early version of the story under the title of "The Reformed" in the November 17, 1842, issue of the the New York Sun is the earliest known printing. The week after that version appeared in the Sun, "The Reformed" was published as part of Chapter XIV of Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. The story was then reprinted as it appears here, under the new title of "Little Jane," in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on December 7, 1846, while Whitman was editing that paper. Whitman kept this title later when he published the story again in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 369–370. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "Little Jane." Several of the revisions to the story for publication in Collect are recorded in our footnotes below. For a complete list of revisions to the language of the Franklin Evans version of the story that were made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the Eagle and Collect, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 309–318. For a publication history of the story under its earliest known title, see "About 'The Reformed.'" For a publication history of the story under its later title, see "About 'Little Jane.'" [back]
2. A tavern is a place of business where customers can purchase alcoholic beverages, as well as food. It was sometimes possible to obtain lodging at such establishments. Here, "tipsey" is used to describe men who have been drinking alcohol. [back]
3. This sentence is omitted in the Collect version of "Little Jane." [back]
4. This sentence is omitted in the Collect version of "Little Jane." The last three sentences of this paragraph, beginning "The ashiness, and the moisture on the brow, and the film over the eye-balls," first appeared, with minor differences, in "Reuben's Last Wish," a short story that had been published in the New York Washingtonian on May 21, 1842. [back]
5. This sentence and the preceding one, beginning "My child," first appeared, with minor differences, in "Reuben's Last Wish." The first sentence was revised further for publication as "Little Jane:" in "The Reformed," it reads "'My child!' she cried, in uncontrollable agony, 'my child! you die!'" [back]
6. A tipsy brawler is a drunken young man whose intoxicated state makes him more likely to engage in fights or physical violence. [back]
7. The "death-damps" refer to a cold sweat that precedes death. [back]
9. This narrative of Mike Marchion's conversion from a tipsy brawler to a sober and reformed youth was similar to those shared at temperance “experience meetings." In the original printing of the story as "The Reformed," Whitman offers a frame narrative that presents the tale as Mr. Marchion's personal experience; here, the frame is missing, but the plot of the story still follows a sequence of events common for temperance fiction insofar as a rowdy, drunken youth transforms into a sober man following a conversion experience. Meetings in which speakers described conversion experiences similar to this one were an important part of the Washington temperance societies’ approach to persuading drinkers to sign a pledge in which they promised to stop drinking and commit themselves to the temperance cause. Whitman was especially interested in the Washingtonian temperance movement, which was popular in New York at the time he wrote "The Reformed," Franklin Evans, and "Reuben's Last Wish," all of which have temperance themes. [back]