Not many people know that Walt Whitman-arguably the preeminent
American poet of the nineteenth century-began his literary career
as a novelist. Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the
Times was his first and only novel. Published in 1842, during a
period of widespread temperance activity, it became Whitman's most
popular work during his lifetime, selling some twenty thousand
copies. The novel tells the rags-to-riches story of Franklin Evans,
an innocent young man from the Long Island countryside who seeks
his fortune in New York City. Corrupted by music halls, theaters,
and above all taverns, he gradually becomes a drunkard. Until the
very end of the tale, Evans's efforts to abstain fail, and each
time he resumes drinking, another series of misadventures ensues.
Along the way, Evans encounters a world of mores and conventions
rapidly changing in response to the vicissitudes of slavery,
investment capital, urban mass culture, and fervent reform.
Although Evans finally signs a temperance pledge, his sobriety
remains haunted by the often contradictory and unsettling changes
in antebellum American culture. The editors' substantial
introduction situates Franklin Evans in relation to Whitman's life
and career, mid-nineteenth-century American print culture, and many
of the developments and institutions the novel depicts, including
urbanization, immigration, slavery, the temperance movement, and
new understandings of class, race, gender, and sexuality. This
edition includes a short temperance story Whitman published at
about the same time as he did Franklin Evans, the surviving
fragment of what appears to be another unfinished temperance novel
by Whitman, and a temperance speech Abraham Lincoln gave the same
year that Franklin Evans was published.
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