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On this date in 1892: Walt Whitman’s death, and his 1847 ‘Death in the School-room’ piece for the Brooklyn Eagle

The Dec. 24, 1847 front page featuring Walt Whitman's work.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

March 26 is a day of literary mourning, as New York City marks the 122nd anniversary of the death of Walt Whitman, the nineteenth century poet and essayist. But here at the Brooklyn Eagle, we choose to celebrate his inherently “New York” literary spirit by republishing a fascinating piece of authorship that Whitman wrote for the Eagle while acting Editor and Chief, as close to the original format as possible for online.

On Christmas Eve 1847, Whitman presented his short story Death in the school-room... on the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle in its entirety. As the title clearly indicates, this is an incredibly unconventional and not at all traditionally family or season-friendly read. In fact, it is quite obviously heartbreaking, especially for having been published on Christmas Eve, a day that is traditionally held for celebration, just following a Christmas Hymn. But Whitman was never a conventional man. On the contrary, he was deeply complicated with strong opinions, and terrible people skills. There is even evidence of him quarreling with numerous city newspapers, including our own Brooklyn Eagle.

Is it ironic or brilliant of Whitman to have published such a terrifying story in the daily paper, as children were arriving from school on this particular Christmas Eve night? Whatever the case, it is certainly important. Though short in length, the powerful story successfully examines a mixture of social, political, and cultural NYC issues that are still relevant today such as education-quality, classism, poverty, power, death, and both mental and physical child abuse in schools. Once a schoolteacher himself, it seems that Whitman’s Death in the school room is an open argument in favor of both children and women’s rights in New York City in 1847. This may be an example of the early seeds of child-labor activism beginning to form in Brooklyn.

Readers should also make careful note of the strong yet subtle homoeroticism just beneath the surface of almost every aspect of the story: the soft and feminine language used to characterize Tim, the innocent setting of the school room, the all-male character list (the only woman mentioned in the story is Tim Barker’s nameless mother, and it seems that her only purpose in the story serves to further connect Tim to femininity), the garden (maybe of “eden,” where Tim receives the only food available to him), the inherently evil schoolteacher, Lugare who takes unconcealed pleasure in the torturing of the helpless Tim, and of course, the climax of the story, which quite obviously parallels most traditionally depicted rape-scenes in literature and film.

Was Whitman in fact also dealing with his own sexuality, sexual frustration and anger towards an America that viewed homosexuality as an illness or demon in a person to be cured? Whatever your politics may be, it is widely quite understood that the law in both the United States and Great Britain has not historically been particularly supportive of the gay community. Especially during the 19th century, both England and America saw numerous ‘purity movements,’ – it was only last July that the British Parliament officially legalized gay-marriage, and in the United States, government still treats gayness and relationships as an issue more fit for the political platform than as a natural matter-of-fact in society. This story is an important staple of homosexual history – a clear example of why the gay community has sought cultural freedom in the first place. The story enlightens its audience on Whitman’s obvious homosexual emotions, and I think, despite a reader’s politics, but as unified New Yorkers, we can all appreciate how much the city has transformed socially since Dec. 24, 1847 to openly accept that all Americans, despite age, gender, or sexual orientation, have a place in Brooklyn.

In celebration of cultural, historical, political, and literary Brooklyn, and in celebration of Walt Whitman both as a man and an author/editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, please enjoy and take heed in reading Death in the school room... from 1847 purposely (and once again, ironically) republished on the 122nd anniversary of his death:

Death in the school room….. by Walter Whitman

TING-A-LING-LING-LING! - Went the little bell on the teacher’s desk of a village-school one morning, when the studies of the earlier part of the day were about half completed. It was well understood that this was a command for silence and attention; and when these had been obtained, the master spoke. - He was a low thick-set man, and his name was Lugare.

“Boys,” said he, “I have had a complaint entered, that last night some of you were stealing fruit from Mr. Nichols’s garden. I rather think I know the thief. Tim Barker, step up here, sir.”

The one to whom he spoke came forward. He was a slight, fair-looking boy of about fourteen; and his face had a good-humored expression, which even the charge now preferred against him, and the stern tone and threatening look of the teacher did not entirely dissipate. The countenance of the boy, however, was too delicately fair for health; it had, notwithstanding its fleshy, cheerful look, a singular cast as if someward disease, and that a fearful one, were seated within. As the stripling stood before that place of judgment—that place, so often made the scene of heartless and coarse brutality, of timid innocence confused, helpless childhood outraged, and gentle feelings crushed—Lugare looked on him with a frown which plainly told that he felt in no very pleasant mood. Happily, a worthier and more philosophical system is proving to men that schools can be better governed, than by lashes and tears and sighs. We are waxing towards that consummation when one of the old fashioned masters, with his cowhide, his heavy birch rod, and his many ingenious methods of child-torture, will be gazed upon as a scorned memento of an ignorant, cruel, and exploded doctrine. May propitious gales speed that day!

“Were you by Mr. Nichols’s garden last night?” said Lugare.

“Yes, sir,” answered the boy: “I was.”

“Well, sir, I’m glad to find you so ready with your confession. And so you thought you could do a little robbing, and enjoy yourself in a manner you ought to be ashamed to own, without being punished, did you?”

“And pray, sir,” continued Lugare, as the outward signs of wrath disappeared from his features; “what were you about the garden for? Perhaps you only received the plunder, and had an accomplice to do the more dangerous part of the job?”

“I went that way because it is on my way home. I was there again afterwards to meet an acquaintance; and—and— But I did not go into the garden, nor take anything away from it. I would not steal,—hardly to save myself from starving.”-

“You had better have stuck to that last evening. You were seen, Tim Barker, to come from under Mr. Nichols’s garden fence, a little after nine o’clock, with a bag full of something or other over your shoulders. The bag had every appearance of being filled with fruit, and this morning the melon-beds are found to have been completely cleared. Now, sir, what was there in that bag?”

Like fire itself glowed the face of the detected lad. He spoke not a word. All the school had their eyes directed at him. The perspiration ran down his white forehead like rain-drops.

“Speak, sir!” exclaimed Lugare, with a loud strike of his ratan on the desk.

The boy looked as though he would faint. But the unmerciful teacher, confident of having brought to light a criminal, and exulting in the idea of the severe chastisement he should now be justified in inflicting, kept working himself up to a still greater and greater degree of passion. In the meantime, the child seemed hardly to know what to do with himself. His tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. Either he was very much frightened, or he was actually unwell.

“Speak, I say!” again thundered Lugare; and his hand, grasping his ratan, towered above his head in a very significant manner.

“I hardly can, sir,” said the poor fellow faintly. His voice was husky and thick. “I will tell you some—some other time. Please let me go to my seat—I a’n’t well.”

“Oh yes; that’s very likely;” and Mr. Lugare bulged out his nose and cheeks with contempt. “Do you think to make me believe your lies? I’ve found you out sir, plainly enough; and I am satisfied that you are as precious a little villain as there is in the state. But I will postpone settling with you for an hour yet. I shall then call you up again; and if you don’t tell the whole truth then, I will give you something to make you remember Mr. Nichols’s melons for many a month to come:—go to your seat.”

Glad enough of the ungracious permission, and answering not a sound, the child crept tremblingly to his bench. He felt very strangely, dizzily—more as if he was in a dream than in real life; and laying his arms on his desk, bowed down his face between them. The pupils turned to their accustomed studies, for during the reign of Lugare in the village-school, they had been so used to scenes of violence and severe chastisement, that such things made but little interruption in the tenor of their way.

Now, while the intervening hour is passing, we will clear up the mystery of the bag, and of young Barker being under the garden-fence on the preceding night. The boy’s mother was a widow, and they both had to live in the very narrowest limits.—His father had died when he was six years old, and little Tim was left a sickly emaciated infant whom no one expected to live many months. To the surprise of all, however, the poor child kept alive, and seemed to recover his health, as he certainly did his size and good looks. This was owing to the kind offices of an eminent physician who had a country-seat in the neighborhood, and who had been interested in the widow’s little family. Tim, the physician said, might possibly outgrow his disease; but everything was uncertain. It was a mysterious and baffling malady; and it would not be wonderful if he should in some moment of apparent health be suddenly taken away. The poor woman was at first in a continual state of uneasiness; but several years had now passed, and none of the impending evils had fallen upon the boy’s head. His mother seemed to feel confident that he would live, and be a help and an honor to her old age; and the two struggled on together, mutually happy in each other, and enduring much of poverty and discomfort without repining, each for the other’s sake.

Tim’s pleasant disposition had made him many friends in the village, and among the rest a young farmer named Jones, who with his elder brother, worked a large farm in the neighborhood on shares. Jones very frequently made Tim the present of a bag of potatoes or corn, or some garden vegetables, which he took from his own stock; but as his partner was a parsimonious, high-tempered man, and had often said that Tim was an idle fellow, and ought not to be helped because he did not work, Jones generally made his gifts in such a manner that no one knew anything about them, except himself and the grateful objects of his kindness. It might be, too, that the widow was loath to have it understood by the neighbors that she received food from anyone; for there is often an excusable pride in people of her condition which makes them shrink from being considered as objects of charity as they would from the severest pains. On the night in question Tim had been told that Jones would send them a bag of potatoes, and the place at which they were to be waiting for him was Mr. Nichols’s garden-fence. It was this bag that Tim had been seen staggering under, and which caused the unlucky boy to be accused and convicted by his teacher as a thief. That teacher was one little fitted for his important and responsible office. Hasty to decide, and inflexibly severe, he was the terror of the little world he ruled so despotically. Punishment he seemed to delight in. —Knowing little of those sweet fountains which in children’s breasts ever open quickly to the call of gentleness and kind words, he was feared by all for his sternness, and loved by none. I would that he were an isolated instance in his profession.

The hour of grace had drawn to its close, and the time approached at which it was usual for Lugare to give his school a joyfully-received dismission. —Now and then one of the scholars would direct a furtive glance at Tim, sometimes in pity, sometimes in indifference or inquiry. They knew that he would have no mercy shown him, and though most of them loved him, whipping was too common there to exact much sympathy. Every inquiring glance, however, remained unsatisfied, for at the end of the hour, Tim remained with his face completely hidden, and his head bowed in his arms, precisely as he had leaned himself when he first went to his seat. Lugare looked at the boy occasionally with a scowl which seemed to bode vengeance for his sullenness. At length the last class had been heard, and the last lesson recited, and Lugare seated himself behind his desk on the platform, with his longest and stoutest ratan before him.

“Now, Barker,” he said, “we’ll settle that little business of yours. Just step up here.”

Tim did not move. The school-room was as still as the grave. Not a sound was to be heard, except occasionally a long-drawn breath.

'Mind me, sir, or it will be the worse for you. Step up here, and take off your jacket!”

The boy did not stir any more than if he had been of wood. Lugare shook with passion. He sat still a minute, as if considering the best way to wreak his vengeance. That minute, passed in death-like silence, was a fearful one to some of the children, for their faces whitened with fright. It seemed, as it slowly dropped away, like the minute which precedes the climax of an exquisitely performed tragedy, when some fine actor is treading the stage, and you and the multitude around you are waiting, with stretched nerves and suspended breath, in expectation of the terrible denouement.

“Tim is asleep, sir,” at length said one of the boys who sat near him.

Lugare, at this intelligence, allowed his features to relax from their expression of savage anger into a smile —but that smile looked more malignant if possible, than his former scowls. It might be that he felt amused at the horror depicted on the faces of those about him; or it might be that he was gloating in pleasure on the way in which he intended to wake the slumberer.

“Asleep! are you, my young gentleman?” said he with a grisly attempt to be facetious, “let us see if we can’t find something to tickle your eyes open. There’s nothing like making the best of a bad case, boys. —Tim, here, is determined not to be worried in his mind about a little flogging, for the thought of it can’t even keep the young scoundrel awake.”

Lugare smiled again as he made the last observation. He grasped his ratan firmly, and descended from his seat. With light and stealthy steps he crossed the room, and stood by the unlucky sleeper. The boy was still as unconscious of his impending punishment as ever. He might be dreaming some golden dream of youth and pleasure; perhaps he was far away in the world of fancy, seeing scenes, and feeling delights, which cold reality never can bestow. Lugare lifted his ratan high over his head, and with the true and expert aim which he had acquired by long practice, brought it down on Tim’s back with a force and whacking sound which seemed sufficient to awake a freezing man in his last lethargy. Quick and fast, blow followed blow. Without waiting to see the effect of the first cut, the brutal wretch plied his instrument of torture first on one side of the boy’s back, and then on the other, and only stopped at the end of two or three minutes from very weariness. But still Tim showed no signs of motion; and as Lugare, provoked at his torpidity, jerked away one of the child’s arms, on which he had been leaning over the desk, his head dropped down on the board with a dull sound, and his face lay turned up exposed to view. When Lugare saw it, he stood like one transfixed by a basilisk. His countenance turned to a leaden whiteness; the ratan dropped from his grasp; and his eyes, stretched wide open, glared as at some monstrous spectacle of horror and death. The sweat started in great globules from every pore in his face; his skinny lips contracted and showed his teeth; and when he at length stretched forth his arm, and with the end of one of his fingers touched the child’s cheek, each limb quivered like the tongue of a snake; and his strength seemed as though it would momentarily fail him. —The boy was dead. He had probably been so for some time, for his eyes were turned up, and his body was quite cold.

Pick up a copy of the Brooklyn Eagle Weekly this week to read the full article.

Search the Brooklyn Eagle Archives, which can also be accessed via the Eagle homepage.

Have something to say? View this article on our BookBeat Blog for an open discussion.

March 26, 2014 - 4:00pm


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