Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass

By Martin Klammer | Go to book overview
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Most discussions of Whitman's attitudes toward African Americans begin with his journalism of the late 1840s in which he opposed the extension of slavery into the new western territories. But such approaches overlook a much earlier text and what is by far Whitman's longest writing involving an African American: the eight curious chapters of the 1842 temperance novel Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate (hereafter Franklin Evans), written when Whitman was twenty-three. Briefly summarized, in this part of the novel the narrator, Franklin Evans, a young, alcoholic Northerner, travels south from New York to a Virginia plantation. Almost immediately upon arrival he is sexually attracted to a female Creole slave. Franklin lets his desire be known to the slave owner, and, in a fit of drunkenness (and with the slave owner's help), he marries the woman and simultaneously has her manumitted. Upon sobering up he discovers to his disgust what has happened, but he is "saved" from his own actions by the sudden appearance of a sexually aggressive Northern white woman who, after arriving on the plantation, targets him as her next romantic conquest. The Creole wife then becomes violently jealous and in a mad frenzy murders the woman and commits suicide, leaving young Franklin to ponder--and reject--any sense of responsibility.

Whitman was not especially proud of Franklin Evans, telling Horace Traubel that it was "damned rot-rot of the worst sort" and claiming


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Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass


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