Selected Criticism

"Fireman's Dream, The" (1844)
McGuire, Patrick
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's incomplete novel "The Fireman's Dream: With the Story of His Strange Companion. A Tale of Fantasie" was first published in Sunday Times & Noah's Weekly Messenger, 31 March 1844. For publication history and text, see Bergman.

Like Whitman's other incomplete novel, "The Madman" (1843), this work appeared in apparently one installment, of two chapters, and ended with the words "To be continued." In chapter 1, a New York fireman, George Willis, spends his day off traveling to Hoboken (New Jersey) and chatting with some Native Americans. One tells George of the life of the forest. When George is injured later while at work, he becomes feverish. In a dream, walking through "unearthly scenes of tumult" (Bergman 10), he kills a fireman. Then in a wilderness of trees, he befriends a male Native American. In chapter 2 the dream continues with the Native American telling George his life story. The Native American was found by white pioneers when he was about seven. The Boanes raised him as their own, taught him English, and sent him to school, where he and Anthony Clark, nephew of the Boanes, excelled. The two boys became fast friends.

Whitman's use of dream narrative is noteworthy. Also noteworthy is his character with an upbringing almost directly opposite that of Natty Bumppo of The Pioneers (1823) and other James Fenimore Cooper novels, who is a white man raised by Native Americans. Whitman makes much of the dual forces at work in this Native American's character, even suggesting that the child, before being found, may have been raised by panthers. The first sentences of chapter 2 establish the duality: "I am white by education and an Indian by birth. Within my bosom reside two opposing elements" (Bergman 11). This duality may foreshadow Whitman's grotesque character Boddo in "The Half-Breed: A Tale of the Western Frontier" (1845).

Little critical attention has been given to "The Fireman's Dream."


Bergman, Herbert, "A Hitherto Unknown Whitman Story and a Possible Early Poem." Walt Whitman Review 28 (1982): 3–15.


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