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About "The Tomb-Blossoms"

"The Tomb-Blossoms" was first published in the January 1842 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. It was the fourth of nine Whitman short stories to appear in the journal—the eight others being "Death in the School-Room. A Fact" (August 1841), "Wild Frank's Return" (November 1841), "Bervance: or, Father and Son" (December 1841), "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 short 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 Whitman was only twenty-two-years-old when he published "Death in the School Room. A Fact." in the journal. 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, "The Tomb-Blossoms" is among the five most often reprinted pieces of short fiction by Whitman, and four of those five stories were first published in The Democratic Review.

The Long-Islander newspaper claims that the setting of "The Tomb-Blossoms" is one of Whitman's early haunts in Huntington, Long Island, near his birthplace.3 "The Tomb Blossoms" highlights the dedication of a widow, Mrs. Delaree, who tends two graves because she does not know which plot in the pauper's burial ground contains the remains of her husband.4 At the time of her husband's burial, she was ill and unable to attend the burial. As a result, when she was well again no one could answer her questions about the grave, save to assure her it was certainly one of two side-by-side graves in the cemetery, and so she brings flowers for both. The story's narrator is a young man who meets the widow when he is on respite from the city, and Whitman begins the tale by expounding upon the merits of the rural village and the vices of the city, revealing a strain of anti-urbanism that is also evident in his temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times (1842) and in his short story "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death" (1844).

In the early 1840s, "The Tomb-Blossoms" was reprinted in both Pennsylvania and Ohio. The tale was even reprinted in the British journal The Great Western Magazine and Anglo-American Journal of Literature, Science, Art, Commercial, and Political Economy, Statistics, &c., which was published in London, in 1842. This reprint likely constitutes one of the earliest appearances of Whitman's fiction outside of the United States.5 The story would garner more widespread reprinting later, and it circulated in different forms, creating a complex and unique publication history. "The Tomb-Blossoms" was reprinted again in London in 1882, albeit in a significantly edited form under the title of "The Tomb Flowers," in My Boys and Girls: a London Magazine for Young Readers.6 Even though the tale might not seem to be the most likely choice for publication as a piece of children's literature, the story was edited such that only the major plot events remained in "The Tomb Flowers," and this edited version was then printed among the magazine's usual offerings of hymns, bible verses, and fiction. In this context, the story may be intended to reveal the steadfastness of the loyal widow who puts flowers on both graves while she is alive and insists on being buried between the two graves when she herself passes away.7

James J. Brenton, founder of the Long Island Democrat (Jamaica, Long Island, NY) and one of the early printers of Whitman's poetry and six of his "Sun Down Papers," also reprinted "The Tomb-Blossoms" in an edited collection titled Voices from the Press; A Collection of Sketches, Essays, and Poems by Practical Printers in 1850.8 Several of Whitman's revisions to the language of The Democratic Review version of "The Tomb-Blossoms" for publication in Brenton's book are recorded in our footnotes. For a reprint of the revised version of the story that was published in Voices from the Press 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.9 Whitman did not choose to include "The Tomb Blossoms" in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories.

The original version of "The Tomb Blossoms" was reprinted in newspapers across the country in October 1892, only seven months after Whitman's death in Camden on March 26. On October 23, 1892, it was reprinted as "The Tomb-Blossoms Posthumous Sketch," presumably referring to the fact that it was being reprinted after Whitman's death, in the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), The Galveston Daily News (Galveston, TX), the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), and the Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT). In each of these reprintings, the story is accompanied by four illustrations from an unknown artist that portrayed the grave site, the narrator rushing to catch a train, the narrator's conversation with the widow, and, finally, the narrator's reflection on what he has heard from her. Later reprintings, such as that in The Helena Independent (Helena, MT) did not always include all of these illustrations that were published in the story as it was printed on October 23.10 At the same time, as the story continued to circulate, a variant title appeared in Indiana, Kansas, and Ohio such that "The Tomb-Blossoms Posthumous Sketch" was changed to "Her Offerings," a title that was accompanied both by the same illustrations and this description: "Why a Poor Woman Decorated Two Paupers' Graves. Her Dead Husband Occupied One of Them, But Which One?—An Affection That Was Finally Transferred to a Bright Reward."11 On the same date as the illustrated "Posthumous Sketch" reprints were published, October 23, 1892, The Press (Philadelphia, PA) also reprinted "The Tomb-Blossoms," but with its own unique set of illustrations of the graveyard, the widow, and the narrator's encounter with her.12

The version of "The Tomb-Blossoms" that was published in Voices from the Press has been reprinted at least once in the twentieth century, in the Long-Islander, the weekly newspaper that Whitman founded in 1838 in his hometown of Huntington, Long Island.13 During the paper's one hundred and third year in 1940, Walter Funnell included the story, as it had appeared in Brenton's book, immediately after his article "In Early Youth Walt Whitman Wrote ‘The Tomb Blossoms.'"14

"The Tomb-Blossoms"

Walter Whitman The Tomb-Blossoms The United States Magazine and Democratic Review January 1842 10 62–68 per.00321


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. "Early Haunts of Walt Whitman," The Long-Islander, October 30, 1903, 7. For more information on The Long-Islander and Whitman's role as its founder, see Karen Karbiener, "Long Islander," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 407–408. [back]

4. Patrick McGuire, "Tomb Blossoms, The (1842)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 735–736. [back]

5. See Walter Whitman, "The Tomb-Blossoms," The Great Western Magazine and Anglo-American Journal 1 (July 1842): 334–338. [back]

6. See "The Tomb Flowers," Our Boys and Girls: a Monthly Magazine, July 1881, 51. [back]

7. For full citations and further information about the reprints of "The Tomb-Blossoms," 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): 202–209. [back]

8. See Walter Whitman, "The Tomb Blossoms," in Voices from the Press; A Collection of Sketches, Essays, and Poems, by Practical Printers, ed. James J. Brenton (New York: Charles B. Norton, 1850), 33. [back]

9. See Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction New York: New York University Press, 1963), 88–94. [back]

10. For a more detailed description of this subset of illustrated reprints, see Blalock, "Bibliography of Walt Whitman's Short Fiction in Periodicals," 205–207. [back]

11. See Whitman's Fiction: A Bibliography. See also Blalock, "Bibliography of Walt Whitman's Short Fiction in Periodicals," 202–209, especially 207–208. [back]

12. See "The Tomb-Blossoms," The Press, October 23, 1892, 26. [back]

13. See Karbiener, "Long Islander," 407–408. [back]

14. See Walter S. Funnell, "In Early Youth Walt Whitman Wrote 'The Tomb Blossoms,'" Long-Islander, December 5, 1940, 4. [back]

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