Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
New Orleans, Louisiana
Author:
Harris, Maverick Marvin
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Since its founding in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Lemoine, Sieur de Boinville, New Orleans has been the largest, most important city in Louisiana. Located in the hollow of a three-sided bend of the Mississippi River as it reaches the Gulf of Mexico—hence its name "The Crescent City"—it has from earliest times been a commercial and cultural center. Walt Whitman's three-month stay there from 25 February to 25 May in 1848, while he worked for the newly-founded New Orleans Crescent, significantly impacted his development as a poet and essayist.

The first occupants of this low-lying, swampy, palmetto-covered area were adventurers, gold hunters, thieves, pirates, and the riff-raff of society. As people of means and social standing were later drawn to the new land of opportunity, a Creole society evolved. New Orleans developed under the flags of Spain and France until 1803, at which time it passed to the young United States via the Louisiana Purchase. The Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and the Mexican War (1846–1848) highlighted the significance of the city as a port of entry to the interior regions of the growing nation.

Whitman, with his fourteen-year-old brother Jeff, left New York in February 1848 at the invitation of J.E. McClure to help establish the New Orleans Crescent. Traveling by rail, coach, and boat for the 2,400 mile trip, Whitman experienced the vastness of the American land and fixed in his mind the fullness and diversity of his beloved America.

Arriving on the St. Cloud on 25 February, Whitman and Jeff took temporary quarters but later moved into the Fremont House in the American district across from the St. Charles Hotel and the offices of the Crescent. The city was at the height of the festival season; General Taylor's men, back from the Mexican War, swarmed the streets. Over the next few weeks, as he roamed the streets in early morning, during break times, and late at night, Whitman observed bustling wharves lined with steamboats, active courtrooms, lively theaters, the opulent opera, the candle-lit cathedral, gaming houses, fancy brothels, jaunty parades, and Saturday night balls. He absorbed the exotic French-Spanish flavor of the flowered courtyards. He enjoyed lounging in large barrooms and hotel saloons, drinking the select drinks they afforded. But most of all, he enjoyed strolling along the levees and marketplaces, where he listened to Indian and Negro hucksters proffer their wares and where he bought coffee and a biscuit for breakfast from a large Creole mulatto woman. These experiences and impressions formed the basis of feature articles in the Crescent and, later, "New Orleans in 1848" in November Boughs (1888).

Most scholars now reject the idea that Whitman was involved with a Creole woman of higher social rank than his own and that his sudden exit from New Orleans was due to complications deriving from this relationship. The theory of a New Orleans romance, started by Henry Bryan Binns in his A Life of Walt Whitman (1905), proposes to explain the mystery of Whitman's letter to John Addington Symonds in which he discussed his life down South and mentioned six illegitimate children (for which there is no documented evidence). It is also used to explain the dramatic change in Whitman after the New Orleans trip, his sexual awakening, and the inspiration for the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Some biographers think the lines "O Magnet-South! O glistening, perfumed South! My South! / O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse and love! good and evil! O all dear to me!" in "Longings for Home" (later "O Magnet-South") suggest a New Orleans romance. Some quote the first five lines of "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing" as support for the idea. Basil De Selincourt asserts in his 1914 critical study of Whitman that "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" bemoans the death of one who was all but wife to him—the genteel New Orleans lady. Still others see further evidence in "Once I Pass'd through a Populous City," in which Whitman penned, "Yet now of all that city I remember only a woman I casually met there who detain'd me for love of me . . . who passionately clung to me." However, Whitman's earlier manuscript, which read "the man" instead of "a woman," is telling. Current scholarship by and large rejects the theory.

Due to a contentious relationship with the owners of the Crescent, Whitman resigned on 25 May and returned to New York.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Binns, Henry Bryan. A Life of Walt Whitman. London: Methuen, 1905.

Bucke, Richard Maurice, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel. Introduction. The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman. By Whitman. Vol. 1. New York: Putnam's, 1902. xiii–xcvi.

De Selincourt, Basil. Walt Whitman: A Critical Study. London: Martin Secker, 1914.

Holloway, Emory. Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1926.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. 1962. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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