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"One Wicked Impulse!" (1845)

This short story was initially published in United States Magazine and Democratic Review, July–August 1845, as "Revenge and Requital: A Tale of a Murderer Escaped." It was given its current title in Specimen Days & Collect (1882). For publication particulars and Whitman's extensive revisions, see Brasher's edition of The Early Poems and the Fiction.

This Dickens-like story involves a corrupt lawyer, Adam Covert, guardian to brother and sister orphans. He dupes them out of their money, and he insults the young woman. Her brother, Philip, vows vengeance. While waiting out a storm, the two men fight and the young man kills Covert. Philip's psychology is noteworthy; the storm's wind, thunder, and rain kindle "a strange sympathetic fury" in Philip's mind (Whitman 312). The one witness, an African-American man, mercifully chooses not to testify against Philip, and Philip goes free.

In the original version, Philip finds peace after the murder from working with cholera victims in New York and in saving one of Covert's orphaned children. Philip eventually succumbs to cholera himself. In the final version, Philip finds peace in recognizing that his bloody hands will not wither roses, which smell as fragrant as ever: no cholera, no death for Philip.

Critics have preferred to comment on the first version. Thomas Brasher notes that the revisions weaken the story's original opposition to capital punishment. David Reynolds also sees the original version as sensationalism, mixing violence with criticism of the wealthy. Philip Callow reads the first version as a temperance tract, while Justin Kaplan sees elements that parallel Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" (1842).


Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt The Early Poems and the Fiction. 1963. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.

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