Selected Criticism

"Dumb Kate" (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.

This short story first appeared in Columbian Magazine, May 1844, under the title "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death." Revised, it was given its current title in Specimen Days & Collect (1882). For further publication history and revisions, see Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction.

"Dumb Kate" is a slight tale. Kate, the beautiful, deaf and dumb daughter of a tavern owner, is seduced by a wealthy young man. The villain moves to New York, where his business prospers. Sick at heart, Kate languishes and dies. A little boy throws a weak but lovely flower on her grave, and she becomes the subject for gossipmongers on their Sunday strolls.

In the original version, Whitman emphasizes the "sweet intoxication, as well as the madness" of love (252, n9). Consequently, Kate is less blameworthy. Originally, Whitman also included a paragraph warning moralists not to judge Kate. Without this didacticism, the story may be viewed as an exercises in irony or ironic endings: villainy prospers while innocence loses both her reputation and her life; gossips say uncharitable things after church service; and the weak but lovely flower tossed so easily into the grave becomes a fitting symbol of Kate herself.

The theme of grief as a cause of death connects this story to other Whitman tales, most notably "The Boy Lover" (1845). Also, Whitman's warning against the judgment of Kate is related to a similar injunction in "The Angel of Tears" (1846).

Very little critical attention has been given to "Dumb Kate."


Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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