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About "Wild Frank's Return"

"Wild Frank's Return" was first published in the November 1841 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. It was the second of nine Whitman short stories that were published for the first time in the journal—the eight others being "Death in the School-Room. A Fact" (August 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 in his early twenties when his stories began appearing in The Democratic Review; he was only twenty-two years old when "Wild Frank's Return" 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

Whitman's "Wild Frank's Return," like "A Legend of Life and Love," focuses on the separation and subsequent reunion of two brothers.3 In their youth, Frank "Wild Frank" Hall and his brother Richard part ways following a dispute over a horse called Black Nell. Their father decides in favor of Richard, the older brother, allowing him to take possession of Black Nell even though young Frank had been caring for the horse. Following their father's decision, Frank leaves home, and the then seventeen-year-old goes to sea for approximately two years. Whitman's story begins with Frank's return to his hometown and his reunion with his brother at the local tavern. Richard comes to meet Frank at the tavern, with Black Nell in tow, and agrees to allow Frank to ride home for his visit with their parents. Along the way to the family home, Frank—who has had a drink at the tavern—takes a nap with the horse tethered to him. A sudden storm startles the horse, causing her to run away from the noise, dragging Frank behind her all the way to his parents' home. Frank's mother opens the door only to find her son's battered and bloody body, still attached to the horse by a cord, which Justin Kaplan has read as corresponding to the umbilical cord given that Whitman characterizes Frank as being especially close to his mother.4

"Wild Frank's Return," like a number of Whitman's other short fiction works, can be read as a temperance story that warns against the dangers of alcohol consumption.5 Even though Frank only had one drink in the barroom upon his return, the storm and his tragic death follow on the heels of Frank's decision to drink a glass of brandy. Whitman also characterizes the sea-faring "Wild Frank" in stark contrast to his "sober-faced" elder brother, Richard, and even the language describing the events leading up to Wild Frank's death suggests the deafening thunder and lightning that accompany the storm scares Black Nell, in part, because the storm made the entire scene appear as if it were "reeling like a drunken man."6 At the same time, the unwavering and arguably unkind father of the two boys is reminiscent of Mr. Bervance in "Bervance: or, Father and Son" and even the unsympathetic Unrelenting, a Native American chief bent on vengeance in "The Death of Wind-Foot." Despite the very different circumstances in this tale and in "The Death of Wind-Foot," both stories end with the death of each father figure's son.

A footnote, presumably added by Whitman, that accompanies "Wild Frank's Return" in The Democratic Review informs the magazine's readers that "The main incidents of this and another story, 'Death in the School-Room,' contributed by the same writer to a preceding number of the Democratic Review, were of actual occurrence; and in the native town of the author, the relation of them often beguiles the farmer's winter-fireside."7 Further research would be necessary to determine whether the two stories record or are inspired by actual historical events or even by Whitman's personal experiences.

"Wild Frank's Return" does not seem to have been reprinted often in the 1840s, although it was reprinted a few times in the Northeast within three months of its publication in The Democratic Review. Yet, even as late as 1863, some twenty-two years after this story was first published, several Pennsylvania newspapers began reprinting what seems to be the original version of the tale, along with Whitman's first short story "Death in the School-Room."8 In The Lancaster Intelligencer (Lancaster, PA), for example, the two stories appeared on the front page of the paper on the same day, in the April 7, 1863, issue.9

Whitman reprinted "Wild Frank's Return" himself—with some editorial changes—in the May 8, 1846, issue of 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 also showed renewed interest in short stories he had written just a few years earlier. He revised and reprinted his only temperance novel and thirteen of his short fiction pieces, including "Wild Frank's Return," in the paper.10 In the Eagle text, Whitman omits the footnote claiming that both "Wild Frank's Return" and "Death in the School-Room" were based on actual events. This time, the story is simply printed with the heading "A tradition of Long Island."11

Whitman also included a revised version of "Wild Frank's Return" in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (1882), in which he printed a selection of his short stories.12 Several of Whitman's revisions to the language of the original, Democratic Review version of "Wild Frank's Return" (1841) for publication in both The Eagle (1846) and Collect (1882) are recorded in our footnotes. For a reprint of the version of the story that was published in Collect and a complete list of revisions to the language of the original story made or authorized by Whitman for publication there, see Thomas Brasher's The Early Poems and the Fiction.13 Brasher does not record the revisions Whitman made to the language of the original story for publication in the Eagle. If Brasher was aware that Whitman reprinted the story in the Eagle, he does not mention this text.

The Eagle version of "Wild Frank's Return" was later reprinted a second time in that paper, along with the Eagle version of "A Legend of Life and Love." Both stories were published in a special centenary edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle honoring the 100th anniversary of Whitman's birth, on May 31, 1919. This issue of the paper contained a twelve-page Walt Whitman section celebrating the poet's life and writings.14 More recently, the Library of America reprinted "Wild Frank's Return" online from its edition of Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose after selecting the tale as a "Story of the Week" in 2013.

"Wild Frank's Return"

Walter Whitman Wild Frank's Return The United States Magazine and Democratic Review November 1841 9 476–482 per.00318


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 Patrick McGuire, "Wild Frank's Return (1841)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 789–790. [back]

4. McGuire, "Wild Frank's Return (1841)," 789–790. [back]

5. Whitman may have been interested in temperance reform for personal and professional reasons. The Washington temperance societies, part of the Washingtonian temperance movement, were popular in New York in the early 1840s when Whitman was writing fiction. The Washingtonians' compassionate approach to persuading the drunkard to join the temperance cause likely appealed to Whitman. He even mentioned the Washingtonian societies by name at the beginning of his temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. In addition to "Wild Frank's Return," Whitman also wrote several short stories with temperance themes, including "The Reformed," "The Child's Champion," "The Love of the Four Students," and "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death." For a history of the Washingtonian movement and a detailed explanation of their approach to reform, 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. For more information about the possibility of alcoholism in Whitman's own family and his fascination with nineteenth-century temperance reform, see Jennifer A. Hynes, "Temperance Movement," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 709–710. [back]

6. See Whitman's "Wild Frank's Return." [back]

7. See Whitman's note at the bottom of the first page of the story, "Wild Frank's Return." [back]

8. For full citations and further information about these and other reprints of "Wild Frank's Return," 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): 197–198. [back]

9. See "Death in the School-Room. A Fact" and "Wild Frank's Return," The Lancaster Intelligencer, April 7, 1863, [1]. [back]

10. 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), "Death in the school room" (December 24, 1847; formerly "Death in the School-Room. A Fact"), 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. "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]

11. See W. Whitman, "Wild Frank's Return (1841)," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 8, 1846, [1]. [back]

12. See Walt Whitman, "Wild Frank's Return," in Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 353–357. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "Wild Frank's Return." [back]

13. See Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 61–67. [back]

14. See Walter Whitman, "Wild Frank's Return (From The Eagle, May 8, 1846)," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Walt Whitman Centenary Edition, with a 12-page Walt Whitman section), May 31, 1919, 9–10. [back]

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