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Title: About Children

Creator: Walt Whitman [unsigned in original]

Date: April 16, 1842

Whitman Archive ID: per.00589

Source: New York Aurora 16 April 1842: [2]. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. Original issue held at the Paterson Free Public Library, Paterson, NJ. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Cayden Miller, Olivia Haddox, Jason Stacy, Samuel Goggin, and Kevin McMullen




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About Children.

Coming out of the Aurora office between twelve and one o'clock, night before last, intending to wend our way homeward—on the steps of a building between Tammany Hall1 and that which our printers occupy, we noticed a boy fast asleep. He might have been eleven or twelve years old; and as we stooped over him we saw that he was very ragged and very dirty. The glare of the gas lamp near by, lighting up the sleeper's face, showed features by no means deficient in beauty and intelligence. We were about waking the youngster, when a watchman who, unseen by us, had been leaning against the iron lamp post, spoke and prevented the fulfillment of our intention. He said that frequently, when the weather was not stormy or very cold, the child would take an hour's sleep there; he was a newsboy—patronised the Chatham theatre—his home was in the upper suburbs of the city—and when kept late down town by his dramatic propensities, he whiled away the intervening time until his morning work, in the manner we saw him. We inwardly breathed a benison2 upon the slumbers and future lot of the poor little devil, and walked forward.

We love children.3 Nor is it our custom to draw the line, and entertain good feelings only for those that, being brought up in the lap of fortune, are possessed of the polish of refinement, in their sphere. Children—the poor man's or the rich man’s—children, with all the freshness, the artlessness of nature—the dew, the bloom upon them, as it were—how fond we have ever been of the mischief loving little creatures! They are fresh from the hands of Him whose architecture is always perfect until desecrated by the conduct of the world. What can be more merry than their voices, ringing out upon the air in play—and what, than their innocent glee, better balm to the heart of a man when he has been wearied with anger or disappointment? The great novelist of our day has shown a beautiful taste in selecting children for his heroes and heroines—if those two terms will apply. Previously, writers thought it was stooping too low; they considered the little people as too little for their pens. How true their notions of the subject were, bear witness poor Oliver, and crazed Barnaby, and pathetic Nell!4

And the death of children—why do we never associate it with any thing terrible and ghastly—as we do the death of grown people? Perhaps it is that in the latter case we know, however fair the past conduct of the deceased man or woman may have been, there was doubtless much guilt committed, either in disposition or in actual performance; for we sin every day of our lives. While in the other instance, the very extremest wrongs ever done by the dead child, were but airy follies, too trivial for account. One is the drying up of a clear transparent brooklet; and one the quenching of a river, more extensive, no doubt, but leaving upon its dry bed, the signs of hopes wrecked, and trusted treasures betrayed. There are few prettier customs than that, said to be prevalent in some parts of Europe, of adorning the coffins of young people with flowers.

A friend of ours, a parent of a large family, has among them one son who is deaf and dumb from his birth. Having, from sympathy for this boy's hapless deprivation, shown him several kindnesses, such as win children's hearts—he always expresses the utmost pleasure at our visits to his father's house—and we are come to be on quite sociable terms together. Our little friend is very fond of paintings and engravings. He will spend whole hours in looking over a collection of them; and if he does not understand what they are meant to represent, he allows the company no peace until it is explained to him. During a call we made at his parents', a few days ago, he came running in with a picture he had just found in ransacking a portfolio, and which baffled him to comprehend. It was the crucifixion of Christ and the thieves. His head bound with thorns and leaning from the weight of his awful misery—large drops of blood mixing with the sweat that pour down upon his breast—the Man of Grief still bore upon his features the impress of a mighty and unconquerable, and benevolent mind. A thief was upon either side; one, in his agony, had drawn his limbs up as much as possible—and so faithful was the artist’s skill, they seemed almost to be quivering in their torture.

We explained the scene as well as we could by signs to the boy. We showed how that wicked men had seized on the person of the holy Teacher, and had put him to death; how that, to make his misery more aggravated, they had crucified him between two most abandoned criminals. We pointed to the sun, and making a sweep with the arm from east to west, gave him to know that when the orb of the day thrice crossed its circuit, the body of the murdered Nazarene burst the cerements of the grave, and, throwing aside the bands of decay and death, rose to life and glory. It was very singular, and we could not help noticing it, that the mind of this dumb youth seemed to respond at once to the idea of a God. His looks were subdued and reverent; his appreciation of what we told him about the nature and mystery of the supreme power intuitive; his soul appeared awed within him; and as we went on to explain the affectionate disposition of the Great Master of the Apostles—how he gave assistance to the poor—how he comforted the sorrowful, and soothed the pains of sickness and guilt—how he called little children unto him—and how he met with no resting place whereon to lay his fainting limbs—and was at last cruelly put to death, by agony the most excruciating—amid scoffs and revilings and ridicule—all this seemed to touch the child, even to his inmost heart.


Notes:

1. Tammany Hall is both the name of the building and the private political organization housed within. Other names include Sons of St. Tammany, Society of St. Tammany, and the Columbian Order. Tammany is derived from the name of revered Delaware Indian chieftain, Tammanend. Founded as a fraternal order on May 12, 1789, the group became a growing Democratic power in New York City. Whitman had a tumultuous relationship with the organization. [back]

2. "The pronouncing or invocation of a blessing; benediction" (Oxford English Dictionary Online [accessed February 13, 2018]). [back]

3. These sentiments reflect the advent of a Victorian conception of childhood in the United States. Prior to the works of authors like Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll, children were viewed primarily as miniature adults. Whitman, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by the perceived purity and innocence of childhood and wrote about it numerous times throughout his career. [back]

4. Whitman refers to three of the most famous children in the fiction of Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist, Barnaby Rudge, and Nell Trent. Dickens's social criticisms were not always well received in the United States, but Whitman adored his raw take on less glamorous (and often ignored) literary subjects such as poverty and childhood. Oliver Twist is the title character for Dickens's second novel (also known by the title The Parish Boy's Progress), published in 1839. Twist is a London high born orphan whose story critiques the living conditions of the working poor and the treatment of children (particularly orphans) in Victorian London. Barnaby Rudge is the main character of Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty, an American Revolution-era historical novel published in 1841. Nell Trent, portrayed as a beautiful but low-born girl, is the main character of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). Her story, like the others, is filled with tragedy, misfortune, the loss of innocence, and the examination of class. For more information on Charles Dickens and his characters see Warren Andrea, Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011). [back]


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