Skip to main content

About "Death in the School-Room. A Fact."

"Death in the School-Room. A Fact." (usually referred to as "Death in the School-Room") was first published in the August 1841 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. It was the first of nine Whitman short stories that were published for the first time in the journal—the eight others being "Wild Frank's Return" (November 1841), "Bervance: or, Father and Son" (December 1841), "The Tomb-Blossoms" (January 1842), "The Last of the Sacred Army" (March 1842), "The Child-Ghost; A Story of the Last Loyalist" (May 1842), "A Legend of Life and Love" (July 1842), "The Angel of Tears" (September 1842), and "Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped" (July/August 1845).

The Democratic Review, jointly founded by John L. O'Sullivan and Samuel D. Langtree, promoted liberal democratic politics and became a prestigious literary magazine of the time. In addition to publishing articles on national policy and playing an important role as an organ of the Democratic Party, The Democratic Review formed longstanding publishing relationships with well known nineteenth-century fiction writers and poets, thereby building its reputation for literary excellence.1 The editors published works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, and Henry David Thoreau, among others. Whitman was only twenty-two years old when when his first short story "Death in the School Room. A Fact." was published. The journal also published Whitman's "A Dialogue [Against Capital Punishment]" (November 1845) and, later, a review of Leaves of Grass titled "Walt Whitman And His Poems" that he wrote himself (September 1855).2 The Democratic Review's prestige may help explain why two stories published in the journal—"Death in the School-Room. A Fact." and "A Legend of Life and Love"—became Whitman's most often reprinted tales. In fact, four of the five most often reprinted pieces of Whitman's short fiction were first published in The Democratic Review.

"Death in the School-Room" focuses on a cruel and "old-fashioned" schoolmaster named Lugare, who still disciplines his students by whipping them with a rattan cane. The story opens with Lugare preparing to punish a young, frail child named Tim Barker for a crime he did not commit. Barker lives alone with his widowed mother, and because they are poor, a local farmer kindly leaves them bags of produce, which Tim collects and carries home. Lugare reports that someone has witnessed Tim with a bag over his shoulder, and the teacher accuses the boy of having stolen melons from the farmer's garden. Lugare vows to punish Tim in one hour's time if he does not admit to stealing from the farmer, but during that hour, Tim seems to fall asleep. An infuriated Lugare flogs the child with his rattan, only to discover that Tim was already dead and he "had been flogging a corpse."3 Through this horrifying ending to the story, Whitman emphasizes and criticizes Lugare's unmerciful punishment of his students, including Tim Barker. According to the narrator, for example, Lugare's methods amount to little more than "child-torture," and the schoolmaster himself is characterized as one of several unyielding and violent father figures that appear in Whitman's fiction. Similar characters include the drunken sailor in "The Child's Champion" and the fathers in "Wild Frank's Return" and "Bervance: or, Father and Son." As a result, "Death in the School-Room" is often read as an anti-corporal punishment story.4

This story may be based, in part, on Whitman's own experience as a schoolteacher on Long Island. According to a footnote printed in the November 1841 issue of The Democratic Review with Whitman's "Wild Frank's Return," both of the stories are based on real events. Financial need prompted Whitman to become a teacher, and it was one of the most difficult periods in his life. From 1836 to 1841—the year he began writing fiction—Whitman taught at village schools in approximately ten Long Island towns. At this time, he boarded at the homes of his students and taught students of various ages for some nine hours each day while receiving little pay for his efforts. Unlike Lugare, the cruel schoolmaster, Whitman was a progressive educator: he engaged his students in educational games and did not punish them with the rattan or the paddle.5

According to Thomas L. Brasher, at least one writer went so far as to link Whitman's first short story with his later career as a poet. Brasher notes that Jay Charlton (pen name for J. C. Goldsmith) mentioned "Death in the School-Room" in William Shepard Walsh's edited collection Pen Pictures of Modern Authors (1882), where Charlton explains that the reason Whitman "came to consider himself a poet was due to a prose sketch he wrote, describing a death in a school-room. The piece was vividly written and widely copied. . . . Walt was elated at the success of his sketch."6 Late in his life, Whitman took issue with Charlton's article, claiming he had read it and declaring it "the silliest compound of nonsense, lies & rot I have ever seen—Not a line but has an absurd lie."7

While reviews of and readers' responses to Whitman's short stories are generally rare, there is evidence of the positive reception or the "success," as Charlton put it, of "Death in the School-Room" in nineteenth-century periodicals. In the August 15, 1877, issue of the Madison Weekly Herald (Madison, IN), "Death in the School-Room" was described as the "story of a child's death under the lash of a brutal teacher" and as a tale that "was much copied."8 Just a few days after the tale's publication in The Democratic Review, a letter to the editor was printed in the Boston Morning Post (Boston, MA) praising "Death in the School-Room." In the letter, a reader denoted solely as "R" explained that he was "very much excited" to read the story. "R" went on to state, "I hope you will find room in your paper to copy the above interesting article referred too​ ." Although the editor replied "We'll try," no copy of the story has been located in the Post.9 Even though the Boston Morning Post may not have reprinted the story, The Dollar Newspaper (Philadelphia, PA) reported that Whitman's "'Death in the School Room' and a 'Legend of Life and Love' were copied by three fourths of the newspapers in America, and universally admired." Although these claims are exaggerated, the paper rightfully acknowledges the success of both stories, and the article also explains that the author (Whitman was never named as the author of either tale in this article) "received five dollars" for the stories from The Democratic Review, because he was not yet an established writer of fiction like the other authors whose contributions filled its pages.10

Both the Madison Weekly Herald and The Dollar Newspaper were correct in their assessment of the wide circulation of Whitman's story. "Death in the School-Room" was reprinted almost immediately after its initial publication in The Democratic Review, and it spread quickly across the United States, appearing most often on the front page of newspapers published in the Northeast and Midwest. During Whitman's lifetime, "Death in the School-Room" was reprinted more than 130 times under several different titles, ranging from "Death in a School-Room" to "Scene in a School."11 The variations in titles and in character names across all of the reprints of the story are significant and merit a project of their own.

Whitman revised and reprinted the story himself under the shortened title "Death in the school room" on December 24, 1847, in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat, while he was serving as the editor of 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 his only temperance novel and thirteen of his own short fiction pieces—including "Death in the School-Room"—in the paper.12 The Eagle text of "Death in the school room" is largely the same as the original printing except for Whitman's decision to alter the ending by omitting the last two sentences from The Democratic Review version.

Whitman's first short story was still being reprinted more than thirty years after its initial publication. It was reprinted several times in Wisconsin in the late 1850s and in Pennsylvania in 1863, which was well after Whitman had left New York, traveling first to Virginia and then to the hospitals of Washington, where he visited and comforted soldiers wounded in the Civil War. It was also reprinted in Maryland in 1875, the year before the author's edition of Two Rivulets (1876) was published. Whitman later chose to include the tale in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories. Here, the story was published under the title "Death in the School-Room. (A Fact.)."13 He made some revisions to the tale, including altering the ending sentences again, prior to the 1882 publication. Whitman's multiple revisions to the story's ending are recorded in our footnotes. For a reprint of the version of the story that Whitman published in Collect and a more complete list of the differences in language between the original Democratic Review printing (1841), The Eagle text (1847), and that of Collect (1882), see Brasher's The Early Poems and the Fiction.14

"Death in the School-Room" is one of only a few short stories by Whitman to be reprinted recently. The Eagle version of "Death in the school room" (1847) was reprinted in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle online on March 26, 2014, as a memorial to Whitman on the 122nd anniversary of the poet's death.

"Death in the School-Room. A Fact."

Walter Whitman Death in the School-Room. A Fact. The United States Magazine and Democratic Review August 1841 9 177–181 per.00317


1. Susan Belasco Smith, "Democratic Review," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), 175–176. [back]

2. Smith, "Democratic Review," 176. [back]

3. See the ending of Whitman's "Death in the School-Room. A Fact." [back]

4. See Patrick McGuire, "Death in the School-Room (a Fact) (1841)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 169. [back]

5. For a detailed account of Whitman's teaching experiences and the conditions under which he taught, see the "Schoolteaching Years" section of Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price's biography, "Walt Whitman." [back]

6. See Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 55 n1. Hereafter, EPF. For Charlton's complete article, which focuses primarily on Whitman's life and writing in the late 1850s and early 1860s, see William Shepard Walsh, ed., Pen Pictures of Modern Authors (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1882), 161–168. [back]

7. See the letter from Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy of August 5, 1886. [back]

8. "[Walt Whitman's mother]," Madison Weekly Herald, August 15, 1877, [1]. [back]

9. R., "To the Editor of the Boston Morning Post," Boston Morning Post, August 4, 1841, [2]. [back]

10. "Pay of American Writers," The Dollar Newspaper, September 13, 1843, [3]. [back]

11. For full citations and further information about reprints of "Death in the School-Room," see Whitman's Fiction: A Bibliography. See also Stephanie M. Blalock, "Bibliography of Walt Whitman's Short Fiction in Periodicals," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 30 (2013): 182–197. [back]

12. 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), "Dumb Kate—An early death" (July 13, 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), 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 was reprinted 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]

13. See Walt Whitman, "Death in the School-Room," in Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 340–344. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "Death in the School-Room. (A Fact.)" [back]

14. See Brasher, EPF, 55–60. [back]

Back to top