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About "The Angel of Tears"

"The Angel of Tears" was first published in the September 1842 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. It was one 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), "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), 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

The Democratic Review was not Whitman's first choice to publish "The Angel of Tears." In June 1842, Whitman wrote twice to Nathan Hale, Jr., then the editor of the Boston Miscellany, in an effort to sell the story. In his first letter of June 1, 1842, he requested $8 for the story and expressed an interest in supplying Hale with an article for each issue.3 In his second letter to Hale, Whitman emphasized the success of his earlier fiction pieces, writing, "My stories, I believe, have been pretty popular, and extracted liberally. Several of them in the Democratic Review have received public favor, instance 'Death in the School-Room,' &c &c."4 Hale rejected the manuscript and returned it to Whitman. A few months later, in September 1842, the tale was published in The Democratic Review, where seven of Whitman's short stories had already appeared, including "Death in the School-Room" and "A Legend of Life and Love," his two most often reprinted tales.

"The Angel of Tears" focuses on a man who has been imprisoned for killing his brother. The prisoner recounts his crime and recalls the happier times the brothers had when they were younger, while he waits for his own death sentence to be carried out. God sends Alza, the angel of tears, to comfort him as he sleeps. The scene in which Alza appears by the side of the prisoner is reminiscent of the end of "The Child's Champion," in which an angel kisses characters Lankton and Charlie after Lankton rescues Charlie from a violent sailor in a local tavern. In "The Angel of Tears," Whitman again turns to the the theme of the separation of two brothers, just as he does in "A Legend of Life and Love," "Wild Frank's Return," and "Bervance: or, Father and Son," but this is the only story in which one brother actually murders another.5 The story reveals Whitman's sympathy for the criminal, much like the kindness he advocates for excessive drinkers in his temperance fiction. In fact, "The Angel of Tears" raises questions about whether this murder and, by extension, crime in general might not result, in part, from traumatic events in childhood, thereby making it difficult to judge the criminal without understanding those circumstances. The story also seems to imply Whitman's opposition to capital punishment.6

Whitman's "The Angel of Tears" earned mixed reception in periodicals of the time. The Boston Post included a list of the contents of the Democratic Review for September 1842, writing, "The Angel of Tears by Walter Whitman is a gem; we would gladly extract it, did our space permit."7 The New York Tribune, similarly outlining the contents of the September Democratic Review for its readers, stated, "'The Angel of Tears' betrays a good healthy tone of thought and feeling, but is decidedly inferior in point of grace and taste to previous papers of the same author."8

"The Angel of Tears" does not seem to have been reprinted often in the 1840s, but it was reprinted with slight revisions in the February 28, 1846, issue of The Brooklyn Evening Star (Brooklyn, NY), a paper that had already published Whitman's "Shirval: a Tale of Jerusalem" on February 18, 1845. In 1854, the story was reprinted in London in The Lamp: a weekly Catholic journal of politics, literature, science, and the fine arts.9 Several of Whitman's revisions to the language of the original Democratic Review version of "The Angel of Tears" (1842) for publication in Brooklyn Evening Star (1846) are recorded in our footnotes. For a reprint of the version of the story that was published in the Evening Star and a complete list of revisions to the language of the original story made or authorized by Whitman prior to publication there, see Thomas Brasher's The Early Poems and the Fiction.10 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.

"The Angel of Tears"

Walter Whitman The Angel of Tears The United States Magazine and Democratic Review September 1842 11 282–284 per.00326


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 letter from Whitman to Nathan Hale, Jr., June 1, 1842, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 1:25. [back]

4. See the letter from Whitman to Nathan Hale, Jr., June 14, 1842, The Correspondence, 1:26. [back]

5. Patrick McGuire, "The Angel of Tears," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 21–22. [back]

6. McGuire, "The Angel of Tears," 21–22. [back]

7. "Literary," The Boston Post, September 5, 1842, [1]. [back]

8. "The Democratic Review for Sept.," The New York Tribune, September 3, 1842, [1]. [back]

9. For full citations and more information on these and other reprints of "The Angel of Tears," 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): 223. [back]

10. See Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 120–123. [back]

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