‘One Wicked Impulse!’ by Walt Whitman

One Wicked Impulse! by Walt Whitman, 1845

The magic trick:

Setting up a perfect storm of ethical dilemma for the reader to sort out

Blasphemous as it may sound, there is a little bit of Crime And Punishment here in this Whitman offering that is of course pales in comparison to Dostoyevsky but should be noted was published two decades earlier.

I guess the question of what constitutes right and wrong isn’t exactly a trademarked theme, so ignore my pointless introduction and let’s get to the magic.

Whitman lays out the situation and the characters very clearly here. From the beginning, it’s all this is a man who was like this, he took advantage of this situation and these are the people he hurt. It’s very black and white.

The drama isn’t in the text at all; it’s in the reader’s judgments. The entire thing is set up as an ethical test case. As such, it’s a pretty simplistic format, but it’s certainly effective. The reader is left to ponder her own moral compass. And that’s quite a trick on Whitman’s part.

The selection:

Philip Marsh had drank deeply – (let us plead all that may be possible to you, stern moralist.) Upon his mind came swarming, and he could not drive them away, thoughts of all those insults his sister had told him of, and the bitter words Covert had spoken to her; he reflected, too, on the injuries Esther as well as himself had receiv’d, and were still likely to receive, at the hands of that bold, bad man; how mean, selfish, and unprincipled was his character – what base and cruel advantages he had taken of many poor people, entangled in his power, and how much wrong and suffering he had been the author, and might be again through future years. The very turmoil of the elements, the harsh roll of the thunder, the vindictive beating of the rain, and the fierce glare of the wild fluid that seem’d to riot in the ferocity of the storm around him, kindled a strange sympathetic fury in the young man’s mind.


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