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About "One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped"

"One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped" is a revised version of "Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped," a short story that was first published in the July and August 1845 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a prestigious literary magazine and an organ of the Democratic Party that was jointly founded by John L. O'Sullivan and Samuel D. Langtree.1 Whitman himself printed the story with a few revisions (from the Democratic Review version) as "One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped" for the first time in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in September 1846.2

Like "Revenge and Requital: A Tale of a Murderer Escaped," "One Wicked Impulse!" 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 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 and a plot that bears some resemblance to "Revenge and Requital" and "One Wicked Impulse!" 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 these tales, 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" and the 1846 reprinting of the tale as "One Wicked Impulse," 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."

Whitman's editorship of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle began in March 1846, and it ended in January 1848. The Eagle was, during that time, the organ of the Democratic Party for Kings County. Whitman wrote editorials and articles for the paper during this two-year period. He also removed the advertisements on the paper's front page and replaced them with items about literature. He published more than one hundred items on fiction alone during his editorship.5 At the same time, he showed renewed interest in the fiction he had written just a few years earlier. He revised and reprinted Franklin Evans and thirteen of his own short fiction pieces, including "Revenge and Requital," which he retitled "One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped." 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"), "Fortunes of a Country-Boy" (November 16–30, 1846; a significantly revised version of Franklin Evans), 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 1845.6

When he published "One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped" in The Eagle, Whitman divided the story into three serial installments, which were printed in the September 7–9, 1846 issues of the paper. One of the most significant changes to this story was, of course, the change in story's title. Whereas "Revenge and Requital" seems to imply that the murder of Adam Covert was Marsh's attempt to avenge Covert's handling of the Marsh family's money and his relentless pursuit of Esther, "One Wicked Impulse" suggests Philip's actions as a momentary lapse of judgment, perhaps fueled by the night in the bar-room and Covert's insistence that Philip is the son of a weak father. One of the other major changes Whitman made to the story before publishing it in the Eagle was removing the final sentence from "Revenge and Requital," a sentence that seemed to make an explicit statement against capital punishment: "Some of my readers may, perhaps, think that he [Philip] ought to have been hung at the time of his crime. I must be pardoned if I think differently." In contrast, "One Wicked Impulse!" simply ends with Philip Marsh's death, and the narrator's recognition that "young as he was, [his life] had been to him little else than a scene of crime, suffering, and repentance." Whitman's decision to remove the statement against capital punishment may lend some support to the poet's later claim that his short stories were pieces he had written in his early youth, when he was, in his words, "an advocate of the temperance and anti-capital punishment causes."7 It is also possible that the edit was simply to conserve space. The first installment of "One Wicked Impulse!" in the Eagle included the note "Concluded in our next," even though the story ended up being divided across three installments, so it may have run longer than had originally been planned.

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

"One Wicked Impulse" may have received more attention in the 20th century than any of Whitman's other fiction titles. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine published the story in the January 1954 issue; three months later, in March 1954, it was published in the Australian reprint of the same magazine.11 "One Wicked Impulse" is also the only known Whitman tale to be adapted for television. Arthur Fitz Richards adapted the story 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.12 More recently, the Library of America reprinted "One Wicked Impulse" online after selecting the tale as a "Story of the Week" in 2014.

"One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped"

Walter Whitman One Wicked Impulse! A Tale of a Murderer Escaped The Brooklyn Eagle and Kings County Democrat September 7–9, 1846 [1] per.00368


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. For a detailed publication history of the story under its original title of of "Revenge and Requital," see "About 'Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped.'" [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. Dennis Renner, "Brooklyn Daily Eagle," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 79–80. [back]

6. For additional information on The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reprints, as well as other reprints of Whitman's short fiction, see Whitman's Fiction: A Bibliography and Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 335–339. Hereafter, EPF. [back]

7. See Walt Whitman, "One or Two Index Items," in Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882), 202. [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. Brasher, EPF, 316 n9. [back]

10. Brasher, EPF, 309–318. [back]

11. For full citations and further information about reprints of "One Wicked Impulse," see Whitman's Fiction: A Bibliography. [back]

12. See Andrew Jewell and Kenneth M. Price, "Twentieth-Century Mass Media Appearances." [back]

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