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About "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul"

Whitman's "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul" is, in part, autobiographical, and it was published in the June 1848 issue of The Union Magazine.1

"The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul" centers on the Dean family, who experienced a devastating financial loss as a result of the New York fire of 1835, which destroyed much of the financial and commercial district of the city and, as a result, caused the financial ruin of investors and left many men who had formerly been employed as clerks and porters without jobs. In the wake of this tragedy, Ms. Dean, a widow, is left to raise her two children, David and Archibald, despite considerable financial and personal hardship. Archie Dean grows into an honest and hardworking but prideful young man. Much like the poet Lingave, the protagonist of "Lingave's Temptation," Archie feels frustrated by his poverty. He grudgingly becomes a country school teacher and at first writes to his mother to express his misery in his new position. Yet, Archie eventually comes to admire the country and the people who live near his school. He hears a tale about a neighborhood woman who belonged to a family that had once been wealthy but had lost their fortune, and he may see in the tale a parallel to his mother and his family's own struggles. In order to recover her family farm, the protagonist of the story worked hard most of her life and, at last, succeeded in purchasing the farm so her father could spend time there before his death. Archie takes the story to heart and resolves to let go of his bitterness and work harder, even moving back in with his mother following the death of his brother. Whitman praises these changes in Archie, and the concluding paragraph seems to offer Archie's transformation as a moral for the story.2

The story is considered autobiographical because it closely parallels Whitman's own financial hardships and subsequent efforts at teaching long hours in village schools in some ten Long Island towns between 1836 and 1841.3 In the story, Archie Dean, much like a young Walter Whitman, takes a position as a schoolteacher in a rural village, where he feels "as though the last float-plank which buoyed him up on hope and happiness, was sinking, and he with it."4 Whitman expressed similar feelings about his own country teaching, especially in the village of Woodbury. In an August 19, 1840, letter to his friend Abraham Paul Leech, Whitman wrote of the town: "Woodbury! appropriate name!—it would-bury me or any being of the least wish for intelligent society, in one year, if compelled to endure its intolerable insipidity, without the hope of relief."5 The sentiments Whitman acknowledged in his early correspondence and the circumstances he experienced at a series of village schools are echoed in the bitterness and frustration that Archie Dean at last seems to overcome in the tale. Whitman too moved on from teaching; in the early 1840s he worked and/or wrote for several New York newspapers. He also began writing fiction and submitting it for publication to The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, the prestigious literary journal where his first story, "Death in the School-Room. A Fact," was printed in August 1841, when Whitman was just twenty-two years old.

Although The Union Magazine published Whitman's "The Shadow and Light of a Young Man's Soul," it does not seem to have printed any other pieces of his fiction. The Union Magazine was founded by Caroline M. Kirkland as The Union Magazine of Art and Literature. It typically featured western stories, sentimental and moral stories, poetry, and essays on literature. Contributors to its pages included the temperance writer T. S. Arthur, Park Benjamin, Lydia Maria Child, and Catherine Sedgwick.6 John Sartain and William Sloanaker bought the magazine in late 1848 and moved it to Philadelphia. Thereafter it printed works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Cullen Bryant, and was called Sartain's Union Magazine.7

"The Shadow and Light of a Young Man's Soul" was published only about a month after Whitman had returned from a three-month visit to New Orleans, where he wrote for J. E. McClure's New Orleans Crescent newspaper. Whitman's sojourn to New Orelans is believed to have played a key role in shaping the poetry that would be published in the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Whitman did not choose to include "The Shadow and Light of a Young Man's Soul" in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories.

"The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul"

Walter Whitman The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul The Union Magazine of Literature and Art June 1848 2 280–281 per.00342


1. For an account of Whitman's fiction career, see the "Whitman the Fiction Writer" section of Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price's biography, "Walt Whitman." [back]

2. See Patrick McGuire, "Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul, The (1848)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), 632. [back]

3. For a detailed account of Whitman's teaching experiences, see the "Schoolteaching Years" section of Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price's biography, "Walt Whitman." [back]

4. Walter Whitman, "The Shadow and the Light of a Young Man's Soul," The Union Magazine 2 (June 1848): 280. [back]

5. See the letter from Walt Whitman to Abraham Paul Leech of August 19, 1840, in Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., Selected Letters of Walt Whitman (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1990), 8. [back]

6. Frank Luther Mott, "The Union Magazine," in A History of American Magazines: 1741 to 1850, vol. 1 (Cambridge: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1958), 769–770. [back]

7. Katharine Martinez, Page Talbott, and Elizabeth Johns, "Book and Magazine Illustrations," in Philadelphia's Cultural Landscape: The Sartain Family Legacy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 16. [back]

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