Death in the School-Room (A Fact)
Walt Whitman


This story, written by the famous poet when he was 21, is a damning indictment of what Whitman calls "the old-fashion'd school-masters" and their emphasis on discipline and corporal punishment. It was Whitman's first published work of fiction and his first piece published in a prestigious journal.  Go to the tale

   B a c k g r o u n d

  • Story Setting: Not specified (possibly Long Island)
  • Story Date: 1830's-40s
  • Publication Date: 1841
  • Walt Whitman: 1819-92

  •    T h e    S t o r y
    (The links bookmark the tale.)

  • The beginning of the tale
  • A complaint: stolen fruit
  • Tim Barker, student
  • Schoolmaster accuses Barker
  • Barker's innocence
  • Time for Barker's punishment
  • Barker is whipped
  • A horrifying ending

  •    T h e    T h e m e s
    (The links bookmark theme-related passages in the color-coded version of the tale.)

  • The Schoolmaster: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Punishment: 1, 2, 3, 4

  •    R e l a t e d    S i t e s

  • Walt Whitman Home Page (Library of Congress)

  • The Walt Whitman Project

  • Walt Whitman and the Development of Leaves of Grass

  • Walt Whitman - Academy of American Poets

  • Walt Whitman - Literature Online

  • Leaves of Grass

  •    I n t r o d u c t i o n

       Walt Whitman was a schoolmaster in eight different Long Island schools between the ages of 17 and 21. It was not his chosen profession, but one he adopted between stints as a printer and journalist. This put him in company with such contemporaries as Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau, all of whom took up teaching when they could find no other employment.

       In a letter to a friend while teaching in Woodbury, Whitman expressed these sentiments toward teaching: "O, damnation, damnation! thy other name is school-teaching and thy residence Woodbury." Whether this statement expresses Whitman's continuous feelings or momentary exasperation with his schoolmaster's life of low wages and "boarding round" (living with each of his students' families for a short time during the school term), not to mention his frustration at his inability to make his living as a writer, no one can say for certain. But we do have indications that he was a benevolent and somewhat progressive schoolmaster. Some of his pupils later recalled that Whitman did not believe in corporal punishment, liked to teach facts with games like "20 Questions," and played with the schoolchildren during recess.

       The vicious schoolmaster of the story, "Death in the School-Room" is the antithesis of the kind of schoolteacher Whitman appears to have been. One of many heavily moralistic prose pieces Whitman wrote during this period, this story is a damning indictment of what Whitman refers to in the story as "the old-fashion'd school-masters, with his cowhide, his heavy birch-rod, and his many ingenious methods of child-torture, [who] will be gazed upon as a scorn'd memento of an ignorant, cruel, and exploded doctrine."

       "Death in the School-Room (A FACT)" is Whitman's first published piece of fiction and appeared during his last year as a teacher. It was also his first piece to be published by one of the more prestigious journals of the time, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, helping to earn him some literary credibility. An article on Whiman published forty years later claims that Whitman "came to consider himself a poet" after writing this story, but Whitman called the article "nonsense, lies and rot."He also claimed that he wished "to have all these crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp'd in oblivion." However, because of Whitman's penchant to reinvent himself throughout his life, it's impossible to know how he truly felt about this story.