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About "The Child and the Profligate"

"The Child and the Profligate" is a significantly revised version of Whitman’s temperance story, "The Child’s Champion," a tale that was first published in the November 20, 1841, issue of The New World, a weekly newspaper published by J. Winchester. The story was first published in this revised form with the new title "The Child and the Profligate" in the October 1844 issue of The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine. John Inman, who was himself a contributor to many periodicals, edited The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, which was intended to compete with Graham's Magazine. Like Graham's, The Columbian Magazine included poetry, book reviews, and largely sentimental prose. During the first two years of its run, at the time Whitman's story appeared, the magazine included a piece of music and a colored fashion plate in each number. Besides Whitman, other contributors to the magazine included Park Benjamin (who had helped found The New World), the temperance writer T. S. Arthur, and leading women writers including Lydia Maria Child and Catherine M. Sedgwick.1 In the opening number, Inman hailed the ability of magazines like The Columbian to "unite the certain attractions of a popular author with the chances of an able but unknown candidate."2 In 1844, The Columbian Magazine published four of Whitman's short stories. In addition to "The Child and the Profligate," "Eris; A Spirit Record" (March 1844), "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death" (May 1844), and "The Little Sleighers" (September 1844) were all published in the magazine.

"The Child and the Profligate" is a work of temperance fiction, and the tale focuses on a thirteen-year-old boy named Charles who lives with his widowed mother and does hard manual labor, including mowing, for a rich farmer in order to help support himself and his mother. On his way to work, Charles walks past the village's lone public house, a gathering place for sailors and and other rowdy young men to drink, dance, and carouse. While Charles is watching the barroom scene from the casement window, a drunken sailor spots him, lifts him up and physically puts him down among the barroom's older customers, and then offers to treat Charles, and everyone else in attendance, to a drink. Having promised his mother he would not drink, Charles refuses the sailor's invitation, a move that infuriates the tipsy sailor who then proceeds to violently kick Charles.3 A young twenty-something named Langton comes to Charles's rescue and goes on to become a benefactor to the boy and his mother and a mentor and father-figure to Charles. Charles and the barroom incidents motivate Langton to reform, leaving behind his wayward youth and embracing his new friendship and position as a male role model for Charles.4

Like a number of Whitman's other short fiction works, "The Child and the Profligate" can be read as a temperance story that warns against the dangers of alcohol consumption. Whitman may have been interested in temperance reform for personal and professional reasons. The Washington temperance societies, part of the Washingtonian temperance movement, were popular in New York in the early 1840s when Whitman was writing fiction. The Washingtonians' compassionate approach to persuading the drunkard to join the temperance cause likely appealed to Whitman. He even mentioned the Washingtonian societies by name at the beginning of his temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times.5 Whitman wrote several other short stories with temperance themes, including "Wild Frank's Return," "The Love of the Four Students," "Reuben's Last Wish" and "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death." He also started what may have been intended to become another temperance novel similar to Franklin Evans, "The Madman," of which only two chapters have ever been discovered. The Columbian Magazine highlighted and attempted to capitalize on the popularity of Franklin Evans, attributing "The Child and the Profligate" to "Walter Whitman, author of 'The Merchant's Clerk,'" another version of Whitman's temperance novel issued by J. Winchester in 1843.6

The drunken, violent sailor at the barroom in "The Child and the Profligate" is also one of several cruel father-figures in Whitman's short stories.7 He is comparable to the terrifying schoolmaster Lugare in "Death in the School-Room," the severe and unforgiving Mr. Bervance in "Bervance: or, Father and Son," 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."

Whitman made extensive and critically significant revisions to "The Child’s Champion" before it was published as "The Child and the Profligate." Before publishing "The Child's Champion" as "The Child and the Profligate," Whitman removed the explicit references to the sailor's assault on young Charles's backside, changed Charles's age to thirteen, revised the name of Lankton to Langton, removed some of the (arguably) sexual language that describes the interactions between Charles and Lankton in the earlier story, and removed the description of how Lankton and Charles slept in one another's arms.8 Michael Moon argues that in making these changes, Whitman was "aware of the strong and homoerotic quality of 'The Child's Champion'" and that he was "censoring it of a number of the pronounced and recurrent homoerotic references which the first version of the story foregrounded."9 According to Thomas Brasher, Whitman's revisions render the story a more "blatant temperance tale."10

"The Child and the Profligate" was reprinted at least nine times and was published in newspapers in New Hampshire, Maine, and North Carolina, among other states. Most of the reprintings appear to have taken place in 1844, the year the story was first published in its revised form in the The Columbian Magazine.11 "The Child and the Profligate" was still being reprinted in periodicals at least as late as 1874, when it was published in the Salem Register (Salem, MA).

In 1847, Whitman revised "The Child and the Profligate" and reprinted the story himself in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, while he was the editor of that paper. In The Eagle, the story was published as a three-part work of serial fiction, which ran on the first page of the paper in the January 27–29 issues.12 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 in the paper.13

Whitman revised the "The Child and the Profligate" yet again in preparation for publication in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days & Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories.14 Several of the revisions to the Columbian Magazine (1844) version of the story made or authorized by Whitman for publication in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1847) and Collect (1882) are included in our footnotes to the Columbian Magazine version. For a reprint of the Collect version and a complete list of revisions made or authorized by Whitman to the language of the story for publication in the Eagle and Collect, see Thomas L. Brasher's The Early Poems and the Fiction.15

"The Child and the Profligate"

Walter Whitman The Child and the Profligate The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine October 1844 2 149–153 per.00344


1. See Frank Luther Mott, "The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine," in A History of American Magazines: 1741–1850, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 743–744. [back]

2. See The Editor [John Inman], "Magazine Literature," The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine 1 (January 1844): [1]–5. [back]

3. For more on the story's plot, see Patrick McGuire, "Child and the Profligate, The (1841)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), 114–115. [back]

4. McGuire, "Child and the Profligate, The (1841)," 114–115. [back]

5. For a history of the Washingtonian movement and a detailed explanation of their approach to reform, see Glenn Hendler, "Bloated Bodies and Sober Sentiments: Masculinity in 1840s Temperance Narratives," in Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture, ed. Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 125–148. For more information about the possibility of alcoholism in Whitman's own family and his fascination with nineteenth-century temperance reform, see Jennifer A. Hynes, "Temperance Movement," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 709–710. [back]

6. "The Merchant's Clerk" was another version of Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times, which was first published in J. Winchester's The New World in November 1842. This other version of the novel, described as an "off print from the New World" or "the 1843 edition," was titled Franklin Evans: Knowledge is Power. The Merchant's Clerk in New York, or the Career of a Young Man from the Country. By all reports, this version is identical to the 1842 edition, with the exception of the title. These versions are described in William G. Lulloff, "Franklin Evans (1842)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 234–236. Neither Lulloff nor Thomas L. Brasher, in his The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), mention variants between the 1842 and 1843 versions, other than the title. Michael Winship has written in response to an email query that the extra sheets were likely issued at half price in a different wrapper in the Books for the People Series no earlier than May 1843. [back]

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

8. For a record of the changes Whitman made, see Brasher, The Early Poems and the Fiction, 68–79. See also Michael Moon, "The Child's Champion and the 1855 Leaves of Grass," in Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 27–30. [back]

9. For a detailed analysis of Whitman's revisions and the connnections between this story and both Leaves of Grass (1855) and the "Calamus" cluster, first published in Leaves of Grass (1860), see Moon's "The Child's Champion and the 1855 Leaves of Grass," 26–58. [back]

10. Brasher, The Early Poems and the Fiction, 68. [back]

11. For full citations and further information about reprints of "The Child and the Profligate," 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): 199–201. [back]

12. See Walter Whitman, "The Child and the Profligate," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 27–29, 1847, [1]. [back]

13. 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 "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), "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]

14. See Walt Whitman, "The Child and the Profligate," Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 361–366. "Pieces in Early Youth" was also reprinted in Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892): see "The Child and the Profligate." [back]

15. See Brasher, The Early Poems and the Fiction, 68–79. For a publication history of the tale under its earlier title "The Child's Champion," see "About 'The Child's Champion.'" [back]

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