Critical Voices

Typically, critics have dismissed Whitman's temperance writings of the 1840s, arguing that he was simply aligning himself with a popular reform movement in an effort to make money and enlarge his sense of audience. A number of recent critics, however, have increasingly come to view Whitman's temperance writings as integral to his career, providing him with a generative forum for addressing issues of race, class, sexuality, and community. In the selections below from recent criticism, one notes both the continued resistance to taking Whitman's temperance writings seriously and the emergence of new critical perspectives that regard his temperance writings as central to his poetic project.

  1. A species of entertainment. This, ultimately, is what the Washingtonian reform was for Whitman. He would later joke that he wrote Franklin Evans in three days for money under the influence of alcohol; the type of alcohol was variously reported as port, gin, or whiskey. . . . . Whitman went on to begin another dark temperance piece, "The Madman," the opening section of which appeared on January 23, 1842, in the New York Washingtonian. His main goal in all his temperance writings, besides airing private aggressions and fantasies, was to make a connection with the American masses. Peddled as the work of "a Popular American Author," Franklin Evans was, in Whitman's words, "not written for the critics, but for THE PEOPLE." He hoped the story might do some good, issued "in the cheap and popular form you see, and wafted by every mail to all parts of this vast republic."

    The problem was that this was a tawdry way of reaching the masses.

    --David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 97.

  2. Temperance rhetoric and the temperance movement were the context in which [Franklin Evans's] author, the newspaperman Walter Whitman, first articulated what would later become the major issues of his career . . . .

    Like Franklin Evans, Leaves of Grass imagines a stateless society, constituted in the public sphere through performative discourse. The significant difference is that the poetry imagines this associational style as yoked to--and explicated by--the contemplative or self-abandoning moment in the dialectic of individualism rather than its instrumental or self-mastering moment. Where Franklin Evans had imagined a civil society association as organized by voluntariness and self- mastery, condensed in the image of a pledging association, Whitman in the 1850s and 1860s imagined nonstate association as called into being by desire, by contemplative recognition, by the imperfect success of selfing.

    --Michael Warner, "Whitman Drunk," in Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies, eds. Betsy Erkilla and Jay Grossman (New York: Oxford UP, 1996), pp. 31, 39.

  3. Anti-onanist and male-homoerotic discourse are often encoded in temperance writing, so that it is impossible to say at many points "exactly" what is being signified by the writer's language, "for" or "against" masturbation, or sexual connection between males: much moralistic antebellum writing--Whitman's early fiction included--exerts an ambiguous appeal because it provocatively "points beyond" the conventional moralism it ostensibly upholds towards a forbidden world which it in a sense takes as its "real," albeit deferred, subject. "From that moment," the protagonist of Whitman's temperance novel Franklin Evans (1842) says of his first drink of liquor, "I have an indistinct recollection of going through scenes which it makes my stomach now turn, to think upon--drunkenness, and the very lowest and filthiest kind of debauchery." Obviously, this is in a sense an invitation to the reader to fill in the blank gesture the language makes with the fantasy of his choice ("his" since it is manifestly a male reader who is being invited to invest such referential gaps in the language of the text with his own fantasies). "Their friendship," Whitman writes in a similar vein of the pair of male protagonists of his unfinished tale "The Madman" (1843), " was not of that grosser kind which is rivetted by intimacy in scenes of dissipation. Many men in this great city of vice are banded together in a kind of companionship of vice, which they dignify by applying to it the word [friendship].". . . . Whitman is writing at intense cross-purposes at such moments. He can gesture toward his taboo subject, the ubiquity of intimate relations between men in his "great city," only by taking up the subject ostensibly in order to condemn it as "dissipat[ed" and "vicious." These themes dead-end here, but Whitman will take them up again in quite different forms in the first three editions of Leaves of Grass--for example, . . . in two 1850 "Calamus" poems, no. 18 (later "City of Orgies") and no. 29 (beginning "A glimpse through an interstice caught," in which the poet and a male lover sit quietly holding hands in a squalid tavern.

    --Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991), pp. 54-55.

  4. Temporarily reformed, Franklin Evans takes a trip South. It is there, in the final third of the novel, that Whitman's prime concern is made clear. For in Virginia the remainder of the downward path of the intemperate is trod, not by Evans himself, but by his second wife, a Creole named Margaret. Although Evans is the oblique cause of his wife's degradation, Margaret herself takes the final steps so common in temperance literature: those of unrestrained rage, murder and suicide. Such a resumption of the drunkard's progress by a woman who does not drink serves to point out Franklin Evans's primary fault: it is not, as Barton Levi St. Armand suggests, his lack of Ben Franklin's eager zeal, nor is it, as Evans himself repeatedly says, his failure at abstinence, but it is rather his failure at love. Leslie Fiedler has observed that Margaret intrudes "inappropriately upon Whitman's temperance novel" I think, rather, that her intrusion shows precisely the degree to which this book is not a temperance novel, but a call for intemperance of a different sort: the intemperate power of love.

    --Anne Dalke, " 'Whitman's Literary Intemperance': Franklin Evans, or The Power of Love," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 2.3 (1984): 18.

  5. Distinctions of class, glossed over in Whitman's and Stowe's temperance fiction as irrelevant in the United States, are further discounted though the emphasis on the racial difference. Since the displacement of class with gender by necessity breaks down in the temperance genre (masculinity is not enough to maintain economic individualism, and domestic femininity is by itself insufficient to provide shelter and insularity from intemperance, or from the insecurities of emergent capitalism experienced by the fiction's Northern, white readership), the threat circulates in both Whitman and Stowe's temperance fiction that some white workers might not be as "free" and socially mobile as American ideology promises. . . . Whitman's narratives take the problematic loss of possessive individualism and the "paternalism" of temperance a step further by attempting to reassert the absence of class distinctions in the U.S. not through a resignification of gender difference, as is typically observed in sentimental fiction, but through an additional emphasis on racial difference as a final source of the body's authority and self-possession. Figuring poverty as the result of drunkenness, and then figuring the drunkard as a slave to his own appetite explains the failure of an individual to achieve prosperity, while leaving myths of freedom and equal opportunities intact. But with reformation, the drunkard can regain control over his body's desire, a reformation which in effect works to deny the white individual's contingency on the laboring body and the capitalist marketplace. . . . The result, an essential difference between the desire-less, self-controlled "freedom" of the Northern white worker and the corporeality of the black slave of the South, purifies capitalism, domesticating and insulating it from coercive power relations and the degradation of bodies.

    --Gretchen Murphy, "Enslaved Bodies: Figurative Slavery in the Temperance Fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Walt Whitman," Genre, 28 (1995): 116.

  6. More is at stake in analyzing the cultural products of the Washingtonian phenomenon than providing an historical context for a minor, though widely read, genre of writings. The Washingtonian narrative, in both its oral and printed manifestations, is an unlikely but significant progenitor of many popular cultural forms that rely on the affectively transformative effects of sympathetic identification, including much of the sentimental and sensational fiction that dominated the literary marketplace in succeeding decades. In that sense, the reformed and transformed drunkard stands near the beginning of a history of American mass culture. . . .

    The alcoholic body in Washingtonian discourse is clearly sexualized; its manliness is marked racially as well. Typically, at one state in the narration of a drunkard's descent into absolute abjection he is described as a man so far from normative masculine identity that he has also lost his whiteness, at least insofar as whiteness is a visible condition of the skin. The narratives repeatedly decry the physical discolorations that alcoholism produces, remarking on the "unnatural redness" of one drinker's face, while another's is "flushed with a deep red" that contrasts vividly with the "pale" and "colorless" face of his worried daughter. At one of the lowest points in Franklin Evans's life, when he describes himself as "a miserable object," the clearest sign of his fall is his skin color: "My face, I felt, was all dirty and brown, and my eyes bleared and swollen. What use had I for life?" After his rescue from "the forces of the Red Fiend," a former drunkard is invariably whitened, not only by the cleansing baths that usually accompany his being taken in by the Washingtonians, but also by the restoration of his face's "natural" color. . . .

    Washingtonian sentimentality is thus more than an effective rhetoric; it discursively constructs its male subjects in a way that articulates together racialized, classed, and gendered forms of identity into an affective whole, a sentimental structure of feeling.

    --Glenn Hendler, "Bloated Bodies and Sober Sentiments: Masculinity in 1840s Temperance Narratives," in Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture, eds. Mary Chapman and Glenn Hendler (Berkeley: U of California P, 1999), pp. 132-34.

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