Louisiana’s history is full of stories about creative geniuses who come here and find their lives changed forever by what they see.
Artist John James Audubon arrived in Louisiana in 1821 and ended up doing more of his bird pictures here than in any other place. Author Robert Penn Warren’s defining accomplishment was “All The King’s Men,” his novel inspired by Huey Long. Warren, a native of Kentucky, saw Long’s impact firsthand during a teaching stint at LSU.
Another famous writer who was shaped by his time in Louisiana was poet Walt Whitman, whose gig as a journalist in the Crescent City is celebrated in “Walt Whitman’s New Orleans,” a collection of Whitman’s newspaper work from the period that’s just been published by LSU Press.
“Walt Whitman’s New Orleans” is an important part of the legacy of one of America’s most revered poets. It can also be a lot of fun.
Whitman (1819-1892) is best known for “Leaves of Grass,” his poetry collection celebrating the democratic spirit of the common folk. It’s been embraced by readers from all walks of life, including Ronald Reagan, who quoted from it in his speeches.
A Brooklyner, Whitman was a great observer of street life, often working what he noticed on his city walks into his poems. He honed that approach during the spring of 1848, when he took a job for a few months in New Orleans on the staff of the Daily Crescent, bringing his younger brother Jeff along for the trip. Many of the New Orleans stories and commentaries Whitman wrote were based on strolls around town.
He often had a good time. “The fact is, that in this goodly city, we can go through the whole alphabet of enjoyment,” Whitman told readers. He couldn’t help noticing that a good bit of business in New Orleans was conducted over drinks: “And what splendid and roomy and leisurely bar-rooms!”
After witnessing his first Mardi Gras, Whitman pronounced it a success, noting that “we do not believe more than a dozen fights took place during the day.”
Like more than a few crusaders over the years, Whitman suggested that New Orleans could be cleaner: “If the authorities were to have all the streets well cleansed, regardless of expense ... would it not have a powerful influence on the summer health of New Orleans?”
Whitman, never at a loss for words, also had choice things to say about New Orleans coffee, the beauty of Lafayette Square, and a misadventure involving a failed hot air balloon launch near Poydras and St. Charles streets.
No book about 19th-century New Orleans can be without sadness. Whitman also saw the stark reality of slavery in the city, and this, too, influenced the world view he brought to his poems.
In its lighter moments, though, “Walt Whitman’s New Orleans” made me smile. Given the headlines these days, that meant a lot.
Email Danny Heitman at email@example.com.