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Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I
> New Orleans
Leaves of Grass
INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.
§ 6. New Orleans.
The trip which, with his favourite brother Jeff, Whitman made in the spring of 1848 by rail, stage, and Mississippi steamboat to New Orleans, his residence in that city for three months, and his return by way of the Mississippi and the Great Lakes
were rather less important than has commonly been supposed. It is doubtful whether the experience brought into his life a great but secret romance,
and it appears certain that he was not by it first made conscious of his mission as a poetic prophet. But the journey did give him a new and permanent respect for the undeveloped possibilities of his country, especially in the South and West, and it gave him opportunities for the study of the French and Spanish elements in New Orleans; while his observation of the Souths peculiar institution caused him to remain, though a radical Free-Soiler, one careful not to be classed with the Abolitionists. But if this journey was of only measurable importance, perhaps others were of greater; for, though details are almost entirely unknown, it is practically certain that he made still other visits to the South.
Notwithstanding the attractiveness that the new atmosphere had for all that was Southern in Whitmans temperament, he soon haughtily resigned his position, because of a difference with his employers, and left for home 27 May. Almost immediately after his arrival he was engaged by Judge Samuel E. Johnson to edit (and nominally to own) a new Free-Soil paper, the weekly
as the organ of those Democrats with whom Whitman, but not the party leaders behind the
had sympathized the year before. The new paper appeared 9 September, but it had the hard fortune to be burnt out, with no insurance, in a great conflagration that swept the city that very night. But the
was revived in November, and, though a small and apparently a very outspoken sheet, it attained a large circulation. The nature of the political warfare in those days of personal invective may be suggested by Whitmans valedictory, published when, without explanation, he resigned the paper, 11 September, 1849, into the hands of those who would compromise, as he would not, with his political opponents:
To those who have been my friends, I take occasion to proffer the warmest thanks of a grateful heart. My enemiesand old hunkers generallyI disdain and defy the same as ever.
Of the next six years of Whitmans life comparatively little is known. He is said to have been connected with certain newspapers,
to have run a book-store and printing establishment, and to have assisted his aging father, now suffering from paralysis, in building small houses for sale. He had here an opportunity for money-making which, to the disappointment of the family, he allowed to pass unimproved. What is more important, he was growing rapidly in his inner life, as he attended lectures, read miscellaneous magazine articles, Shakespeare, Epictetus, the Hebrew and the Hindoo bibles, and Emerson, and loafed on the shores of Coney Island, timing the new poetry he was composing to the rhythmic beat of the sea. Somewhere in this period probably belongs the mystical experience, described in the poem
Song of Myself,
Section 5, which clarified his vision of the world as love and fused his purposes in life, and which some biographers, attaching to it more significance than did Whitman himself and forgetting that he had other such experiences, are inclined to consider the most important fact in his biography. At any rate, the book of which he had dreamed since adolescence and of which he had as early as 1847
written many passages was now, in 18545, written and rewritten, and printed in Brooklyn, without a publisher, in July, 1855.
The purpose of the author in writing this unique volume may be stated in his own comprehensive words, written in 1876:
I dwelt on Birth and Life, clothing my ideas in pictures, days, transactions of my time, to give them positive place, identitysaturating them with the vehemence of pride and audacity of freedom necessary to loosen the mind of still-to-be-formd America from the folds, the superstitions, and all the long, tenacious and stifling anti-democratic authorities of Asiatic and European pastmy enclosing purport being to express, above all artificial regulation and aid, the eternal Bodily Character of Ones-Self.
The plan for his poetic life-work was to have been completed, he tells us in the Preface to the 1876 edition, by composing
a further, equally needed volume, based on those convictions of perpetuity and conservation which, enveloping all precedents, make the unseen soul govern absolutely at last.
The perfecting of this latter work, dealing with the soul and immortality, had proved beyond his powers and failing health, but a fair idea of what it meant to set forth is to be found, no doubt, in
The Two Rivulets
. Whitmans fullest and best account of the trip south was printed in the early numbers of the
This was not preserved in his collected prose editions, but a considerable portion of it was reprinted in
The Yale Review,
. Whitman never married. In old age he confided to John Addington Symonds the information that, though unmarried, he had had six children, from intimate relations with whom he had been prevented by circumstances connected with their fortune and benefit. For a fuller discussion of this confession and the questions arising out of it than is here possible the reader is referred to the biographies by Binns, Perry, Edward Carpenter, Bazalgette, De Sélincourt, and Traubel.
. Several lines of evidence point to this conclusion. Here it will be sufficient to refer to Whitmans autobiographical note published in
28 February, 1885, over the pseudonym George Selwyn. See Bibliography.
. Changed to a daily in April, 1849.
. An article in the Springfield
28 March, 1892, states that Whitman helped to edit Levi D. Slamms
and a letter from Whitmans friend, T. H. Rome, the first printer of the
Leaves of Grass,
to Wm. E. Benjamin (September, 1898) mentions the fact that after his return from New Orleans Whitman conducted for a short time an advertising sheet called
See also Hearnes city directory for 1851 and 1852.
. A Whitman manuscript notebook in the possession of Thomas B. Harned, one of the poets friends and literary executors, preserves these earliest known specimens of modern free verse. They are shortly to be published by the present writer.
INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS
Leaves of Grass