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  • Walt Whitman and the Washingtonian Temperance Movement
  • Maire Mullins (bio)

"But stop—thought I to myself, my eyes being caught by the sight of my own soiled and tattered garments—am I a fit person for the company of well-dressed and cleanly people? What excuse should I make?"

-Franklin Evans

"I know about such men."

-Louisa Van Velsor Whitman

In November 1842, Whitman published Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times as a newspaper supplement of the New World.1 Whitman was twenty-three years old when the novel appeared. Forty-five years later, he told his literary biographer, Horace Traubel, "'in three days of constant work I finished the book. Finished the book? Finished myself. It was damned rot—rot of the worst sort—not insincere, perhaps, but rot, nevertheless; it was not the business for me to be up to. I stopped right there: I never cut a chip off that kind of timber again.'"2 Critics have interpreted this remark in various ways, but mostly they agree with Whitman that Franklin Evans is not his best work: "While Franklin Evans is hardly as formulaic or predictably moralistic as most critics have asserted, it is without doubt a 'wobbly' text," Christopher Castiglia and Glenn Hendler note. Betsy Erkkila and Michael Moon see the temperance movement's strong influence on Whitman's conception of his reading public; Michael Warner notes that Whitman's temperance-informed newspaper readers shaped his writing.3 While Erkkila, Moon, Warner, and others have offered insightful readings of Franklin Evans, the importance [End Page 477] of the Washingtonian Temperance Movement as a formative influence on Franklin Evans merits expanded scrutiny.

Most notably, Franklin Evans includes several episodes that feature the Washingtonian Temperance Movement's approach to alcoholism, especially its emphasis on confession, compassion, and moral suasion rather than evangelical conversion. The Washingtonian meetings assembled a receptive audience familiar with the plight of alcoholism and ready to hear sufferers' autobiographical speeches. The gatherings' atmosphere of support and nonjudgmental listening provided a platform for communal and individual healing. While Whitman incorporated this emphasis on confession in his novel, he also reshaped it. In several fractured, vexed scenes, the confessional moment's initial promise is followed by its failure. Evans recounts the loss of his job and his first marriage, but in both cases, he cannot articulate fully how his behavior implicates him in these catastrophes. His thoughts about the listeners' responses corrode his ability to confess fully, distracting him from discerning his culpability. Later (in chapter ten), Evans remembers a friend who develops the habit of drinking every day. The ensuing harsh reaction of family members, Evans reveals, is partly responsible for his friend's despairing death. This scene serves as a contrast to the receptiveness that a Washingtonian audience would have offered. While temperance was the motivating factor for Whitman's novel, it was the attitude of the Washingtonians toward the alcoholic that influenced many scenes in the narrative.

Whitman's interest in temperance was part of American society's overarching concern with healthy daily habits. In the 1820s and 1830s, temperance societies allowed moderate drinking, but the Washingtonians rejected this approach. Whitman examines these differing views toward alcohol as he portrays the fates of two farmers: one in Franklin Evans who starts out as a moderate drinker, [End Page 478] and the other in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass who abstains completely. Whitman shows how habit can lead to a life of dissipation or a life of fulfillment. Franklin Evans serves as a prototypical young urban male uprooted from his rural community, whose loneliness drives him to seek companionship in beer halls. Over time, Evans succumbs to drinking culture's negative influence, as Whitman underscores the Washingtonian emphasis on abstinence. Overall, the novel stresses the importance of cultivating beneficial habits, a theme Whitman explores a decade later in two longer prose pieces, "Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography" (1852) and "Manly Health and Training, With Off-hand Hints Toward Their Conditions" (1858).4

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Washingtonian temperance movement was its focus on the working-class alcoholic. This emphasis especially appealed to...