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About "Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped"

"Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped" was first published in the July and August 1845 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 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 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 "The Angel of Tears" (September 1842).

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. He was only twenty-two years old when his first short story, "Death in the School Room. A Fact," was published, and he was twenty-four when the journal printed "Revenge and Requital." 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

"Revenge and Requital: A Tale of a Murderer Escaped" is divided into four sections, and it is one of the longer pieces of Whitman's short fiction. In the tale, a lawyer named Adam Covert is named the manager of an inheritance that a distant relative intended to provide for the use of his two children, Philip and Esther Marsh. By a provision in the will, Covert is also named the legal guardian of Philip and Esther. Covert uses his position of power over the Marsh children and their fortune in an attempt to force Esther to marry him.3 She refuses, despite Covert's threats to leave them penniless if she does not comply. Philip, angry at his guardian and having "drank deeply," meets Covert on the street. He murders the lawyer and is eventually arrested, but then released again due to a lack of evidence. Later, Philip attempts to redeem himself by caring for victims of the cholera epidemic in New York City. He treats the sick, including one of Adam Covert's own sons. But just as Covert's son recovers, Marsh succumbs to the illness. However, he wills his own money to the Covert children in order to provide for their futures.4

In an early notebook, Whitman wrote notes about a character named Covert that bears some resemblance to the character of Adam Covert in "Revenge and Requital." For example, in the notebook, Whitman characterizes Covert as intent on securing through marriage the inherited property of his young ward, a woman named Martha whose inheritance requires such legal services as Covert is supposed to provide. In “Revenge and Requital,” Adam Covert is a widower and lawyer who acts as guardian for Philip and Esther Marsh and their property following the death of their father, a distant relative of Covert and his family. Here, Covert threatens to ensure that the siblings will not receive any of their inheritance unless Esther agrees to marry him. Philip Marsh murders Covert in part because of the lawyer’s propensity to take advantage of people and his attempts to force Esther into marriage. Despite these similarities, there are also a number of differences between the plot Whitman sketched in his notebook and that of “Revenge and Requital.” The notebook, for example, outlines a more complicated plot and a number of characters that are never mentioned in “Revenge and Requital.” In addition to these notes, Whitman pasted two newspaper clippings from The New York Tribune into the notebook: these are dated 1852. Therefore, it is unclear whether the notes about Covert were written before the 1845 publication of “Revenge and Requital” or as many as seven years later, which would mean that Whitman was still planning fiction pieces well after he was believed to have stopped producing fiction in 1848 following the publication of "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul."

The Democratic Review version of Whitman's tale was reprinted in the Northeast and in Ohio. The story was reprinted in its entirety in The Wayne Sentinel (Palmyra, NY) as simply "Revenge and Requital" on September 10, 1845.5 But because Whitman had divided the story into conveniently numbered parts, it was also reprinted as a work of serial fiction. For example, the story was published in five installments on the front page of the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH) from October 13 to October 17, 1845.6

In 1846, Whitman reprinted the tale himself as a work of serial fiction in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat, while he was serving as editor of that paper. Whitman made a few revisions to the original story from The Democratic Review, and he gave it a new title: "One Wicked Impulse! (A tale of a Murderer escaped)." The revised version of the story was published in three parts, in the September 7–9, 1846, issues of the paper. During his two-year editorship (1846–1848), Whitman published items about fiction in the Eagle, and he showed renewed interest in the fiction he had written just a few years earlier. He revised and reprinted his only temperance novel and thirteen of his own short fiction pieces, including "Revenge and Requital."7

Later, Whitman chose 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. This time, he dropped the subtitle and simply called the story "One Wicked Impulse!"8 He also made several changes to the tale, including omitting the last section entirely, a revision that takes out Marsh's redemptive involvement with cholera victims and plays down the story's role as "propaganda for the anti-hanging cause."9 Several of Whitman's revisions prior to publication in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Collect are recorded in our footnotes. For a complete list of revisions Whitman made to the language of the story for publication in Specimen Days & Collect, see Thomas Brasher's The Early Poems and the Fiction.10

The periodical republications of "Revenge and Requital" extend into the twentieth century. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine published the story under its later title, "One Wicked Impulse!," in the January 1954 issue; three months later, in March 1954, it was published in the Australian reprint of the same magazine. Arthur Fitz Richards even adapted the story for television as part of a series by Fred Ziv called "Favorite TV Story," also in 1954. It is uncertain if the episode of the show ever actually ran.11 More recently, the Library of America reprinted "One Wicked Impulse!" online after selecting the tale as a "Story of the Week" in 2014.

"Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped"

Walter Whitman Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped The United States Magazine and Democratic Review July and August 1845 17 105–111 per.00340


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, "One Wicked Impulse! (1845)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 482–483. [back]

4. McGuire, "One Wicked Impulse! (1845)," 483. [back]

5. See Walter Whitman, "Revenge and Requital," The Wayne Sentinel, September 10, 1845, [1]. For full citations and further information about reprints of "Revenge and Requital," 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): 235. [back]

6. See Walter Whitman, "Revenge and Requital. A Tale of a Murderer Escaped, The Cinncinati Daily Enquirer, October 13–17, 1845, [1]. [back]

7. 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 "Shirval—A Tale of Jerusalem" (January 22, 1846), "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. Whitman's "The Death of Wind Foot" was reprinted as a work of serial fiction (August 29–30, 1845) about two months after the story appeared 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]

8. See Walt Whitman, "One Wicked Impulse!," in Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 344–349. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "One Wicked Impulse!" [back]

9. Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 316 n9. Hereafter, EPF. [back]

10. Brasher, EPF, 309–318. [back]

11. See Andrew Jewell and Kenneth M. Price, "Twentieth-Century Mass Media Appearances" in Donald B. Kummings. ed., A Companion to Walt Whitman (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006): 341–357. [back]

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