“My name is Walt Whitman, and I am an alcoholic.” No, not precisely. But a century before AA invented that catchphrase, America had a “temperance” movement that viewed drink and its kindred indulgences as the ordinary citizen’s worst enemy. Linked to such other passions of 1840s reformers as the antislavery movement and the campaign for women’s right to vote, the drive to do away with strong drink became so applauded, and so widely discussed, that a rising young journalist would naturally want to jump on the water wagon’s bandwagon. I mean the last word literally, since temperance societies often held high-visibility parades leading to the well-attended “experience meetings” at which reformed drunkards rose to recount the lurid narratives of their alcoholic downfall and subsequent rebirth as purified teetotalers.
What could have been more logical, under those circumstances, than for the eager young freelance journalist “Walter Whitman,” in 1842, to write a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (now republished for the first time in over four decades)? The form—essentially that of a pro-abstinence sermon interrupted by confessional stories—was already standardized. The medium, a literary-supplement “extra” of the kind New York’s many newspapers competed to offer, was one of the period’s standard venues for introducing new work, including pirated editions of new novels from England, with which the U.S. had no reciprocal copyright agreement at the time. (Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton were among the unsuspecting contributors to The New World, which published Franklin Evans.) Most importantly, the money was good for those who did get paid: Though Whitman repudiated the novel as “damned rot,” he also boasted that he had written it in only three days (“with the help of a bottle of port”) and had made $125 out of it, a sum that went a long way in 1842.
Franklin, Whitman’s hero and first-person narrator, is a Long Island country boy, orphaned early and apprenticed to his uncle, a subsistence farmer hardly able to support his own offspring, who turns the boy out at age 19 to make his fortune in “the great emporium,” as Whitman repeatedly calls New York City. Sociable, sensitive, hardy, and apparently alert-minded even when hopelessly sozzled, Franklin makes friends everywhere he goes. Neither his sensitivity nor his alert mind, however, prevents him from being the worst sucker, and the most spineless backslider, who ever cruised the novelized streets of Manhattan: Wave a bottle of hooch, a lousy business deal, or an unwise romantic entanglement at him,
and he’s there. Wealthy, abstinent friends crop up to provide miraculous rescues whenever he sinks too low, but Franklin, with his sub-Candide obtuseness, somehow never gets the message and heads back to the bottle after every brush with
salvation, so that the work often feels like a Horatio Alger novel in reverse.
Narrative wasn’t Whitman’s gift; the storytelling is spasmodic and arbitrary, in part because the characters, Franklin included, are so nebulous. Whitman needed two decades more of journalistic practice, plus a civil war, to sharpen his eye for detail to the acute specificity that, merged with his gift for sweeping generalization, forged the vibrant style of Leaves of Grass. Expect the equivalent magic in Franklin Evans and you may feel you’ve fallen into a swamp of kitsch, including what seems to be one of every kind of ruined-by-drink cautionary tale ever told in a prohibitionist’s pamphlet.
Still, though a disaster as a novel, Franklin Evans fascinates as a document of its time, revealing much about both 1840s America and its not-yet-great author. Our urban industrial U.S., shaped by successive waves of immigrants, had barely been born; the huge moral and ethical questions that still dog large capitalist enterprises were just beginning to raise their ominous heads. Whitman links “intemperance,” the work’s theme and its constant verbal leitmotif, to nonwhite “savage” behavior: The novel is framed by a tale of Native American violence at the beginning, and an account of violence committed by a freed slave in Virginia for a final fillip. Neither has much relation to alcohol; Whitman’s concept of intemperance as a pre-civilized impulse that lingers, able to louse up anything from mail delivery to marriage, is the work’s one smidgen of intellectual substance. Even more interesting, though never overtly expressed, is its homoerotic tone. Its women are obstacles, vixens, or victims; the male characters, though just as vaguely described, tend to get far more favorable phrases lavished on them before they drift out of sight. The editors have thoughtfully included a relevant Whitman fragment in an appendix; less thoughtfully, they’ve retained 1842 spellings, including a few self-evident typos. They might also have considered footnoting the many obscure quotes with which Whitman decorates his chapter headings, from long-forgotten verse spinners like “Professor Frisbie.”