I teach 10th-grade American Literature at Ridgewood Prep School in Metairie. My students and I were studying Walt Whitman a couple of weeks ago and read that he spent a few months in New Orleans. Apparently, he worked for a newspaper called the New Orleans Crescent. Can you give us any information concerning Whitman's time in New Orleans?
Dear George and the Ridgewood Prep 10th-grade American Literature class,
It is my pleasure to help out eager young minds. High school teachers and their charges hold a special place in my heart.
Walt Whitman, at age 29, headed for New Orleans after leaving a job as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was February 1848.
Two newspapermen had recently left the New Orleans Delta and decided to start a paper of their own -- the Crescent -- to compete with at least six other daily newspapers already thriving in New Orleans. In those days, newspapers freely exchanged information to supply local readers with news from around the country, and the newspapers needed someone with connections to northern papers. Whitman, as a veteran New York City newspaperman and editor, fit right in. One of his first tasks was to set up exchanges with New York papers.
Whitman was an experienced editorial and feature writer, and his first contribution to the premier issue of the Crescent on March 5 was "Crossing the Alleghenies," the first of three essays under the heading "Excerpts from a Traveler's Notebook." In it, he told of the first leg of his journey with his 14-year-old brother Jeff to New Orleans which took him first by rail to Baltimore and Cumberland, then by stagecoach over the Allegheny Mountains, and finally on the steamboat St. Cloud down the Ohio river to the Mississippi and New Orleans.
Walt and Jeff found their first of several lodgings on the corner of Poydras Street and St. Charles Avenue, only a block or two from the magnificent St. Charles Theater and the Crescent offices.
Whitman's contributions to the Crescent were mainly literary essays such as "Honored Be Woman" in which he wrote, "We know of nothing which more certainly marks the true man than an appreciation of the worth of women, and of his duty on all occasions to honor, protect, and love them." In spite of these sentiments, Walt never married.
Although he supported temperance movements in New York, in New Orleans he probably indulged on occasions his life-long appreciation of beer and spirits. The office of the Crescent was near the fabulous St. Charles Hotel with its elegant bar.
One of Whitman's memories of New Orleans and the St. Charles Hotel made its way into Leaves of Grass. On April 4, the Crescent reported that the grandson of the famous orator Henry Clay had blown his brains out "with a pistol in his lodging at the St. Charles Hotel." In "Song of Myself," Whitman would write, "The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom, I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, and note where the pistol has fallen."
The Crescent was soon criticized for its lack of neutrality in political matters. And it was definitely "Southern" in its support of slavery. Whitman, who was appalled at the concept of slavery, apparently kept silent about his views for most of his stay in New Orleans.
However, when the Crescent printed a translation of the "Marseilles Hymn" from a New York paper, Whitman may have been inspired to write "The Old World." This poem about revolutions appeared in the Crescent on April 28 and contained lines such as "The slave must rejoice, the enslavers must weep," and "Fellow mortals! thanksgiving to God! ... He has heard the loud cry of the poor and the slave."
In May, perhaps because of his anti-slavery sentiments, Whitman had a disagreement with the owners of the Crescent and decided to leave the paper. So on May 27 he found himself on the steamboat The Pride of the West heading back up the river after only three months here. However, Whitman believed always that his brief stay in New Orleans was crucial to his development as a poet.