Subscribe to Christianity Today
Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times
Duke University Press Books, 2007
208 pp., 24.95
Whitman the Temperance Novelist
In 1842—long before his self-reinvention as the Bard of America in Leaves of Grass—an aspiring author named Walter Whitman published a novel called Franklin Evans in a New York weekly called The New World. The editor of The New World, Park Benjamin, made his living by pirating English books, including Charles Dickens' American Notes, which he reprinted as "extras." Whitman's novel, however, was billed as an "Original Temperance Novel," and original it was—if, that is, one discounts the interpolated stories Whitman used to pad the narrative. His readers seem not to have minded, quickly buying (if Whitman's biographers are to be believed) some 20,000 copies.
Franklin Evans is the story of an innocent country boy who travels to the city and succumbs to the Demon of Intemperance. Eventually, Franklin loses his wife, his employment, and his freedom (having fallen in with a gang of thieves). After his release from prison, he signs the Old Pledge, promising to abstain from distilled spirits, but not from wine. Alas, the Old Pledge proves to be insufficient after Franklin moves to Virginia, where his wine-drinking leads inevitably to a taste for strong liquor and an unfortunate marriage to a "creole" slave. When he realizes what he has done, he takes up with a wealthy widow from the North, whom his wife poisons out of jealousy before committing suicide. At long last, Franklin is moved to sign the New Pledge of total abstinence from alcohol.
In his old age, Whitman liked to joke about Franklin Evans. He told Horace Traubel that he had dashed off the novel for money "with the help of a bottle of port or what not." Another version had Whitman penning the novel in Tammany Hall with the help of gin cocktails from the nearby Pewter Mug. Such anecdotes, however, are not to be taken seriously. Evidently, Whitman preached (and practiced) the virtue of temperance throughout his life. As a journalist, he reported favorably on a number of Temperance events in New York City ...