Saturday, November 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 200: Walt Whitman, Wild Frank’s Return (#198)

Walt Whitman, "Wild Frank’s Return" (1841) from Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose:

Here we are, my last story-a-day entry in the Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along. Can you believe I've been doing this for 200 consecutive days--and I still haven't gotten a book or a movie deal? Come on, Hollywood, I'll even play myself if Julia Roberts isn't available.

I'll probably have some summing-up to do after this; and I'll probably continue to read the Library of America's Story of the Week. Which raises the question: What will I do with the other six days of the week? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let's just enjoy #200.

Now, apologies if you've seen this before, but I have to steal from my old blog and repeat one of my favorite literary comparisons:

Walt Whitman (from "Song of Myself"):
You there, impotent, loose in the knees,
Open your scarf'd chops till I blow grit within you,
Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets,
I am not to be denied, I compel, I have stores plenty and to spare,
And any thing I have I bestow.
Walt Whitman Mall (from "Mall Highlights"):
Enjoy shopping Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers,
William Sonoma, J. Crew, L'Occitane, bebe, Pottery Barn and Tourneau Watch Gear.
From pampering yourself at Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon at Saks Fifth Avenue
to indulging yourself at Legal Sea Foods and California Pizza Kitchen,
you're sure to find everything you desire!"
I'm not sure if I'm being unfair to Walt or the Mall in that comparison, especially when the truth is that I like both of them. But I can't pass by without pointing out that Whitman's poetry loves to catalogue and list and crowd things together--which is pretty like the modern-day bazaar of the mall. The only difference being that Walt usually wants to bring people together through catalogues--the slave and the seaman and the shopkeep, all Americans!--whereas the ideology of the mall is... something else.

Which is why it's also fun to look back at Walt's early work, the sort of semi-hack gig he held in order to buy food before he became the American Poet. (That transformation is also worth looking into; I'm especially fond of the time that Walt reprinted Leaves of Grass with a positive quote from a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, effectively turning Emerson's private letter into a blurb.) Like today's entry, which is a sensationalistic and gruesome story that wouldn't be out of place in today's New York Post. Naturally, when it was printed, it came with the note that it was from a true story.

The plot, told from beginning to end, is simply that a prodigal son leaves his family when he's angry with his father and brother over a horse; he comes back and everything seems like it's going to be okay, with his brother giving him that horse to ride; a storm spooks the horse and kills the prodigal--who returns home in Poe-approved mangled form.

That sort of twist wouldn't be out of bounds at Tales from the Crypt: the prodigal son returns, only dead. Cue sad trombone. The strange thing here is that we might expect some moral to be tacked on after the fact--kids, don't leave home angry! But the main lesson here seems to be, "don't tie a horse to your wrist when you're taking a nap because a storm could spook the horse and drag you to your death, genius." Seriously: here's a guy who has been to sea, who should know the danger of tying one thing to another, when that "another" is your wrist. And he's taking a nap under a tree, but no, he can't tie the horse to the tree, that would be too sensible for Wild Frank.

Though the ending is a little campy for my tastes, the way that Walt tells the story is interesting and keeps up the tension. He starts with Wild Frank returning to his hometown and acting somewhere between an assured young man and a dirty jerk. So the story starts off with the question, "What's this guy's deal?" Then we hear all about his deal--his anger issues, his fight with his father and brother. So, has he returned to make good or to start trouble?

And just when we've got our first question answered (Who is he? He's Wild Frank), leading to more tension (How wild is he?), we get--release. Frank and his brother meet and are friendly enough; the brother even offers him his old favorite horse, the one that they fought over. And the horse knows and loves Frank. And then Frank stops to take a peaceful nap in a beautiful landscape that reminds him of the happy parts of his childhood.

Then, when we've gone from curiosity to tension to release, we get the real horror of the horse dragging Frank to his death. Which may be a campy, Grand Guignol end, but a well-curated trip to get there.

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