Skip to main content

About "Bervance: Or, Father and Son"

"Bervance: or, Father and Son" was first published in the December 1841 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. It was the third 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), "Wild Frank's Return" (November 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. 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

In "Bervance: or, Father and Son" the first narrator of the introductory paragraph, presumably Whitman himself, turns the story over to Mr. Bervance, who then narrates the tale about himself and his son. Mr. Bervance tells the story as a kind of confession, admitting that he favored his older son over the younger, Luke Bervance, who according to his father is eccentric and often erratic in his behavior. As a result, Luke's father seldom allows him the privilege of leaving the family home for any kind of amusement. Unwavering in his rules for his son's behavior, Mr. Bervance refuses permission for Luke to attend a performance with his family. Luke goes anyway and, later, the two have a violent altercation, which ends when "the Son felled the Father to the earth with a blow!" Mr. Bervance has Luke committed to an asylum. Some time later, Luke returns to his father's home with the "vacant, glaring wild look of a maniac" (essentially appearing more disturbed and distressed than ever after his stint in the asylum); he blames and curses his father before fleeing the scene. His father is left behind, seemingly doomed to hear the repetition of his son's curses for the remainder of his years.3

Mr. Bervance is one of several violent and cruel father-figures in Whitman's short stories.4 He is comparable to the terrifying schoolmaster Lugare in "Death in the School-Room," the father in "Wild Frank's Return," who favors the eldest of his two boys when settling a dispute between his children, the violent, drunken sailor in "The Child's Champion," 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." Here, as in "Wild Frank's Return" and "A Legend of Life and Love," Whitman draws on the theme of the separation of two brothers. This dark story is also reminiscent of the psychological tales of Edgar Allan Poe.5

"Bervance: or, Father and Son" does not appear to have been reprinted many times during the 1840s or after.6 However, the story was reprinted in Massachusetts and New York in December 1841. In the Daily Troy Budget (Troy, NY), the story was reprinted as a two-part serial. The first part of the story appeared in the December 8, 1841 issue, while the concluding part was published two days later in the December 10, 1841 issue.7

Whitman did not choose to include the story in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories. Thomas L. Brasher reprints the original story from The Democratic Review in his The Early Poems and the Fiction.8

"Bervance: or, Father and Son"

Walter Whitman Bervance: or, Father and Son The United States Magazine and Democratic Review December 1841 9 560–568 per.00320


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

4. McGuire, "Bervance: or, Father and Son (1841)," 54–55. [back]

5. McGuire, "Bervance: or, Father and Son (1841)," 55. [back]

6. For full citations and further information about reprints of "Bervance: or, Father and Son," 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): 201–202. [back]

7. See Walter Whitman, "Bervance: or Father and Son," Daily Troy Budget, December 8, 1841, [2]; Walter Whitman, "Bervance: or Father and Son," Daily Troy Budget, December 10, 1841, [2]. For an early reprint in Massachusetts, see Walter Whitman, "Bervance: or Father and Son," Barre Gazette, December 31, 1841, [1]. [back]

8. See Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 80–87. [back]

Back to top