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Walt Whitman’s New Orleans Awakening

(Hint: It Wasn’t the Coffee)

Walt Whitman daguerreotype
This daguerreotype was made in New Orleans between February and May 1848, while Whitman worked on the Crescent. (Credit: Walt Whitman House, Camden, New Jersey)

Gay or straight, New Orleans has always attracted writers; our East Bank is not unlike Paris’ Left Bank in that regard. In 1848, Walt Whitman, who has been called America’s most influential poet, spent three months here. During this time, Whitman’s eyes opened — not only to his own sexuality but also the plight of slaves in America. Here’s what we know about Whitman’s first trip outside of New York.

Bienvenue, Mr. Whitman.

In late February, 1848, a 28-year-old Whitman and his younger brother, Jeff, arrived in New Orleans on the steamboat St. Cloud. It was the final step of a 2,400-mile rail, coach, and boat trip from New York. Whitman had a job waiting as an editor of a new newspaper known as The Daily Crescent. Jeff would serve as an office boy there.

For three months, Whitman wandered the French Quarter, writing of his adventures, such as his experience with a “great [Creole woman]” in the old French Market who sold him “the best coffee he ever tasted” and the “splendid and roomy bars” packed with soldiers recently returned from the war with Mexico. Whitman wrote of wharves lined with steamboats, dramatic courtroom scenes, exciting theaters, a magnificent opera, and the St. Louis Cathedral in candlelight.

The Whitman brothers also arrived just in time for Mardi Gras. In his writings, Whitman described parades and Saturday night balls as well as gaming houses and fancy brothels. But New Orleans was not all moonlight and magnolias. Whitman witnessed an actual slave auction while he was here and, for many years, he kept a poster of a slave auction hanging in his room as a reminder of the injustices taking place right here in his own country. Later, he would incorporate this horrifying experience at the auction into “I Sing the Body Electric,” one of the poems in the first edition of Whitman’s masterpiece, Leaves of Grass (1850).

rotunda ceiling during an auction of slaves, artwork, and goods
Sale of Estates, Pictures and Slaves in the Rotunda, New Orleans by William Henry Brooke (Credit: The Historic New Orleans Collection)

His time in New Orleans was truly an awakening for Whitman. Many believe he had his first relationship with a man on this same trip. While his New Orleans poem “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City” seems to recount a romance with a woman, the original manuscript proves a male lover was his inspiration.

The Daily Crescent. March 05, 1848
Front page of the Crescent, March 5, 1848, the newspaper Walt Whitman worked for when he lived in New Orleans. (Credit: Image provided by: Louisiana State University; Baton Rouge, LA)

Inspired then fired

At one time, it was thought that Whitman’s stay in New Orleans was so short because he had an affair with a Creole woman of higher social rank than his own. In actuality, the affair was with a man, though the reason he left had more to do with a contentious relationship with the owners of The Daily Crescent than it did with a lover’s quarrel. His anti-slavery views also didn’t jibe with the paper’s position. At any rate, Whitman packed up and left the city a week before his 29th birthday.

For those of you visiting New Orleans with a literary bent, there are tons of literary homes and tours to explore. Of course, if you just walk around the French Quarter for an hour or two you just might be inspired to write your own version of Leaves of Grass. 

Be sure to check out the upcoming annual LGBT literary conference, Saints & Sinners. This three-day event includes noted speakers such as Dorothy Allison, Jamie Brickhouse, Jericho Brown, Kate Carroll de Gutes, Kyan Douglas and many more.

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