Not many people know that Walt Whitman - arguably the pre-eminent
American poet of the nineteenth century - began his literary career
as a novelist. Out of print since 1967, Franklin Evans, or the
Inebriate: A Tale of the Times, was his first and only novel.
Published in 1842, during a period of intense temperance movement
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, theatres, and above all taverns, he
gradually becomes a drunkard. Until the very end of the tale,
Evans' efforts to reform fail, and each time he resumes drinking,
another series of misadventures ensues. Along the way, he tries to
ally himself with several powerful, wealthy men, and he marries
twice. His first wife dies the victim of his drunken neglect, and
his second wife - a Creole slave that he rescues from a lascivious
overseer - kills herself after murdering his mistress. The death of
one of his benefactors finally prompts Evans to sign a "total
abstinence pledge." The editors' substantial introduction locates
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 three very short temperance stories 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 by Abraham
Lincoln from the same year Franklin Evans was published.
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