Skip to main content

About "The Child's Champion"

"The Child's Champion" was first printed in the November 20, 1841, issue of The New World (New York, NY), a weekly newspaper published by J. Winchester. The New World was founded by Park Benjamin in 1840, and Whitman worked as a compositor for the paper in May 1841 after he moved from Long Island to New York City.1 As Betsy Erkkila has pointed out, The New World was advertised as the "largest and cheapest" newspaper in the world, and the paper was known for publishing works by British novelists in special "extra" editions.2 According to Emory Holloway, in the absence of any form of international copyright law, the paper pirated and reprinted the works of Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, and Dumas, among other novelists.3 In late 1841, The New World published three works by Whitman, the poems "Each Has His Grief" (November 20, 1841) and "The Punishment of Pride" (December 18, 1841) and the short story "The Child's Champion." The following year, in November 1842, Whitman's only novel, a temperance tale titled Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times, was published as an extra edition of The New World.

"The Child's Champion" is a work of temperance fiction, and the tale focuses on a twelve-year-old boy named Charles who lives with his widowed mother and does hard manual labor, including mowing, for a rich farmer in order to help support himself and his mother. On his way to work, Charles walks past the village's lone public house, a gathering place for sailors and and other rowdy young men to drink, dance, and carouse. While Charles is watching the barroom scene from the casement window, a drunken sailor spots him, lifts him up and physically puts him down among the barroom's older customers, and then offers to treat Charles, and everyone else in attendance, to a drink. Having promised his mother he would not drink, Charles refuses the sailor's invitation, a move that infuriates the tipsy sailor who then proceeds to violently kick Charles's backside.4 A young twenty-something named Lankton comes to Charles's rescue and goes on to become both Charles's bedfellow and, later, a benefactor to the boy and his mother and a mentor and father-figure to Charles. Charles and the barroom incidents motivate Lankton to reform, leaving behind his wayward youth and embracing his new position as a male role model for Charles.5

Like a number of Whitman's other short fiction works, "The Child's Champion" can be read as a temperance story that warns against the dangers of alcohol consumption. 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 Franklin Evans. Whitman wrote several short stories with temperance themes, including "The Reformed," "Reuben's Last Wish," "The Love of the Four Students," and "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death."6

At the same time, the drunken, violent sailor at the barroom is also one of several cruel father-figures in Whitman's short stories.7 He is comparable to the terrifying schoolmaster Lugare in "Death in the School-Room," the severe and unforgiving Mr. Bervance in "Bervance: or, Father and Son," and the vengeful, unwavering Native American chief, the Unrelenting, whose desire for revenge results in the death of his only remaining son, Wind-Foot, in "The Death of Wind-Foot." Michael Moon has pointed out the homoeroticism in "The Child's Champion," including but not limited to the sexually charged language Whitman uses to describe the sailor's attempts to force Charles to drink, the sailor's violent kicking of Charles's backside, and the scene in which Charles and his rescuer Lankton share a bed and sleep in one another's arms.8

There are no known reprints of "The Child's Champion"; however, the extensively revised version of the story that Whitman titled "The Child and the Profligate," which was first published in The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine in October 1844, was reprinted at least nine times.9 "The Child and the Profligate" was reprinted in newspapers in New Hampshire, Maine, and North Carolina, among other states.10 Most of the reprintings appear to have taken place in 1844, the year the story was first published in its revised form in The Columbian Magazine. Whitman republished "The Child and the Profligate" in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat as a three-part work of serial fiction in the January 27–29, 1847, issues, while he was serving as the editor of that paper. "The Child and the Profligate" was still being reprinted in periodicals at least as late as 1874, when it was published in the Salem Register (Salem, MA).

Whitman revised the "The Child and the Profligate" yet again in preparation for publication in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories.11 Several of the revisions to the Columbian Magazine (1844) version of the story made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1847) and in Collect (1882) are included in our footnotes to the Columbian Magazine version. For a reprint of the Collect version and a complete list of revisions made or authorized by Whitman to the language of the story for publication in the Eagle and Collect, see Thomas L. Brasher's The Early Poems and the Fiction.12

"The Child's Champion"

Walter Whitman The Child's Champion The New World November 20, 1841 [321]–322 per.00319


1. See Susan Belasco, "The New World." [back]

2. See Betsy Erkkila, "New World, The (New York)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 457–458. [back]

3. Emory Holloway, Editor's Introduction to Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (New York: Random House, 1929), xvii. [back]

4. For more on the story's plot, see Patrick McGuire, "Child and the Profligate, The (1841)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 114–115. [back]

5. McGuire, "Child and the Profligate, The (1841)," 114–115. [back]

6. 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]

7. Patrick McGuire, "Bervance: or, Father and Son (1841)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 54–55. [back]

8. For an analysis of these and other homoerotic moments in "The Child's Champion," as well as Whitman's choice to eliminate many such moments in his later revisions to the tale, see Michael Moon, "The Child's Champion and the 1855 Leaves of Grass," in Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 26–58. [back]

9. For full citations and further information about reprints of "The Child and the Profligate," 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): 199–201. [back]

10. For more information about where Whitman's fiction was reprinted, see the map of the publications and reprints of the fiction. A single location on the map may include multiple markers. To view these, click the marker on that location, and it will spiral out so you can view all publications associated with that location. To remove the spiral, click another marker or refresh the page. [back]

11. See Walt Whitman, "The Child and the Profligate," Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 361–366. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "The Child and the Profligate." [back]

12. See Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 68–79. For a publication history of the tale under its later title "The Child and the Profligate," see "About 'The Child and the Profligate.'" [back]

Back to top