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Walt Whitman - Inspired by a City

by Steve Newman

Walt Whitman the American poet, of part Welsh decent, was as much the literary grandfather of D. H. Lawrence as any other writer, and probably more so than most, but, unlike Lawrence, seldom sought solace or inspiration in a single individual, with the exception of his disabled brother: a man he looked after pretty much all of his life.

For Whitman it was, first and foremost, the roar of the city and the men and women who worked there that were his inspiration, not least the horse drawn omnibus drivers, and the bar-tenders, the bridge builders and ferrymen, the musicians and singers, the printers and newspapermen who worked for him when he plied his trade as an editor.

He loved the mighty rivers and the steam paddle boats, one of which, with another of his brothers, he boarded in 1848 and headed south.

Whitman loved New Orleans, loved its warmth and colour, loved the way cotton planters, northern factory agents and merchants thronged its streets — doing business on a handshake — streets that were full of Spanish men and Creole women, English businessmen and French adventurers, soldiers, sailors, artists and musicians.

He loved the way the mighty Catholic Cathedral dominated the French Quarter: a building that often made a cool diversion for Whitman as he contemplated the very idea of poetry — poetry that was beginning to bubble up inside him. He loved to walk and idle in the squares, parks, courtyards and gardens, where fountains played amidst abundant tropical flowers and trees; or he might sit at a cafe table and just watch it all pass him by.

Port of New Orleans ca 1840s

Four nights a week there was opera at the Orleans Theatre, mainly his beloved Verdi. And it was in the foyer of the theatre that poets, writers, journalists and actors came together after a show to talk and laugh, or maybe take a stroll along the riverside to the saloons, and then the gaming houses, and later, perhaps, the brothels. If there was a story to tell it would be told over a bottle of champagne. Which meant there were stories for Whitman to write: stories that might scandalise, stories that might intrigue, stories that might shock. Old stories mostly, given new life by good company and a good imagination.

Walt Whitman had never felt better in his life — he was a man built for sunlight and heat, a man who hated to have his neck trundled-up in ribbon for the sake of fashion. So, in New Orleans, he discarded his neck wear and went around in a white open-neck shirt, the collar of which flapped over the lapels of a cool linen suit. To set it all off he sported a large fedora and carried a silver tipped cane. He wasn’t quite the gentleman, but New Orleans didn’t really care; as long as he followed certain rules, the main one being you didn’t criticise slavery. For Whitman that was going to be hard. But, for now, he was enjoying himself.

Walt Whitman

One evening, as Philip Callow writes, Whitman:

“Caught sight of another hero, this time one he had only read about. General Zachary Taylor of Mexican War fame was expected by many to be the next president of the United States. At the Saint Charles Theatre he had come to see a rather daring show, Dr.Colyer’s troupe of Model Artists, straight from ‘the Royal Academies of London and Paris.’ Their semi-nude, absolutely stationary tableaux depicting famous sculptures such as the Medici Venus, the Temptation, and Adam’s first sight of Eve had been defended and attacked in a number of American cities. Whitman was there to write up the performance for the Crescent. The house lights went up to show a man in civilian clothes, flanked by uniformed aides. The audience clambered to their feet to pay homage to the doughty hero of Buena Vista as the orchestra played ‘Hail Columbia’.”

Whitman was not overly impressed with Taylor, thinking him rather coarse, and wondering if such a man — just because he’d proven himself on the battlefield — should be president, forgetting that a good many presidents in the recent past had come to power because of such military prowess.

And the articles Whitman wrote for the Crescent do lack the vim and brio of the ones he’d written early for the Brooklyn Eagle, due to the fact that he couldn’t (or felt he couldn’t) express himself fully about the horrors of slavery, especially the slave auctions, many of which he witnessed.

There is some speculation that he may even have bought a slave girl so that he could set her free by means of the so called ‘underground railway’ that surreptitiously ‘transported’ freed slaves to many of the Northern States of the US.

There is also speculation that Whitman had a lover in New Orleans, as his poem, ‘Once I Passed Through A Populous City’ suggests, a lover that undoubtedly changed his life, and the direction of the poetry that was bubbling away inside him.

New Orleans certainly made Whitman take notice of realities, and he may very well have tried to write honestly about slavery, because by May 1848, he’d fallen out with the owner of The Crescent and, in fear for his life, found it necessary to make a hasty departure from the city.

Once back in Brooklyn Whitman began writing and remembering, and, as Van Wyck Brooks writes:

“ Tough-minded as he was, Whitman, the most impressionable of men, absorptive as a sponge in the in the fertile waters of the time, sooner or later made his own, remodelled for his peculiar ends, whatever he received from other writers. But the ‘child’ who went forth every day, becoming the objects he looked upon, became as well the minds that he read or heard of, for he flooded himself with the immediate age, as he said the poet ought to do, its thoughts and feelings as well as its appearances and facts…”

That’s as much a description of Lawrence as it is Whitman.

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