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CHAPTER IV ROMANCE (1848)
Whitman was nearly twenty-nine, and had not, so far as I can discover, wandered beyond the limits of his own State,[94] nor had he experienced, to our knowledge, any serious affair of the heart. The only trace of strong personal emotion in his writing hitherto is that which we found in the Tribune poems, dictated by the passion of human solidarity. “Blood Money” is probably the only thing which he had yet produced from the deeper regions of consciousness; it is the only piece of real self-revelation which he had yet confided to the world. Now we come suddenly upon a time of wandering, over which he himself has drawn a veil—a veil which covers, we cannot for a moment doubt, one of the most important incidents of his life. But it is a veil which we are unable to raise.[95]

Walking in the lobby of the old Broadway Theatre, between the acts, one February night,[96] Whitman was introduced to a Southern gentleman. A quarter of an hour later he had engaged to go South, to assist in starting the Crescent, a daily paper in New Orleans. On the eleventh of the month he set out.[97] The South was as unknown to him as it still remains to the majority of Northerners; and the South must have been as strange and fascinating to the son of Mannahatta as are the shores of the Mediterranean to a Londoner. An[Pg 47] air of romance seems to breathe from his every reference to this period, and it may well be that the passionate attraction which afterwards drew his memory to the “magnet-south” had some personal incarnation.

Bidding a hasty good-bye to his family and friends, he left New York and made his way[98] through populous Pennsylvania, and over the Alleghanies to Wheeling on the Ohio river, where he found a small steamer, and in it descended leisurely, with many stops by the way, through the recently settled lands of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois, into the Mississippi, the Father of Waters, thenceforward pursuing his voyage for more than a thousand miles along that greatest of American highways, to the borders of the Mexican Gulf.

For the first time his eyes saw how vast was his country: he realised the South, and he understood the significance of the political struggle for the control of the new West. He was almost afraid as he journeyed, not so much at the immensity of the prospect, as because he felt himself upon the verge of the Unknown and its mysteries: and his feelings found utterance in some verses written on the voyage and subsequently published—surely, with a smile at the critics—in his Collected Prose. As they illustrate his mood at the time, and afford the best example of his skill as a maker of conventional verses, I may quote from them here.

After describing the fantastic forms which line the margins of the forest-bordered river, he proceeds:—
Tide of youth, thus thickly planted,
While in the eddies onward you swim,
Thus on the shore stands a phantom army,
Lining for ever the channel’s rim.
Steady, helmsman! you guide the immortal;
Many a wreck is beneath you piled,
Many a brave yet unwary sailor
Over these waters has been beguiled.
Nor is it the storm or the scowling midnight,
Gold, or sickness, or fire’s dismay—
Nor is it the reef or treacherous quicksand
Will peril you most on your twisted way.
[Pg 48]
But when there comes a voluptuous languor,
Soft the sunshine, silent the air,
Bewitching your craft with safety and sweetness,
Then, young pilot of life, beware.[99]

The lines are not of the best, but they are suggestive. They seem to express the lurking fear of one hardily bred in the North, when first he feels upon his face the breath of the seductive South. His strenuous self-sufficiency is imperilled. A strange world of sensations surrounds him, awakening in himself a world of emotions as strange. It is suggested to him that he is not quite the man that he supposed, that there is another side to his character, and he resents the suggestion. For who will willingly begin over again the task of self-discovery? The conservative organising active Ego fears the awakening of the adventurous, receptive Ego. I think Whitman was startled as he realised how little as yet he understood himself, or was willing to accept his whole soul if it should rise up and face him.
Picture of New Orleans about the time of Walt's visit.

NEW ORLEANS ABOUT THE TIME OF WHITMAN’S VISIT, FROM A PRINT

The New Orleans of ’48 must have been the most romantic and perhaps the most prosperous city in the union. It was the centre of Western commerce, as well as of Mexican filibustering: its great hotels, the St. Charles and the St. Louis, were the rendezvous of planters and merchants, politicians and adventurers, and of the proudest aristocracy in the States.[100] It was a gay city, with its Creole women and Spanish men, its dancing and its play, its masks and dominoes, its duels and carnivals; gay as only an old city can be gay, with the contrast between age and youth.

About the Catholic cathedral was a mass of irregular red-tiled roofs and a net-work of shady alleys, on to which opened great galleries and courtyards full of vines. Scent of roses and the caressing sound of Creole singing stole upon the languorous breaths of the warm humid air, breaths which lazily stirred the golden-rod that overgrew the dormer windows, the old venetian[Pg 49] blinds, the geraniums and the clothes hanging in the sun. Along the alleys went the priests in their black skirts. Through the doorways one saw red floors sanded and clean, and quaint carved furniture, heirlooms of generations; or caught a glimpse of some old garden with its fountains and lilies, its violets and jonquils, myrtle and jessamine. Everywhere flowers and singing birds, and the soft quaint Creole phrases falling with the charm that only Southern lips confer.

Such was the old French quarter. Along the river-side was another; the lawless world of Mississippi flat-boatmen, a vagrant population drawn from many States, who with the soldiers discharged after the Mexican war frequented the low saloons and gaming-houses; passionate men, capable of any crime or adventure.

Again, there were the Bohemians of the city, the artists, journalists and actors of a centre of fashion. Opera had found its first American home at New Orleans, and was presented at the famous Orleans Theatre four times a week. Whitman, the opera-goer, must often have been there. Perhaps he met among the Bohemians a juvenile member of their group, Dolores Adios Fuertes, a young dancer, to be known hereafter in London and in Paris as Adah Isaacs Menken, actress, and authoress of a pathetic volume of irregular metres, who now lies buried at Mont Parnasse.

During the three months of his stay, Whitman saw New Orleans thoroughly.[101] Often on Sunday mornings he would go to the cathedral; he idled much in the old French quarters, and sauntered and loafed along the levees, making acquaintances and friends among the boatmen and stevedores. He frequented the huge bar-rooms of the two hotels, where most of the business of the city seems at that time to have been transacted; but temperate and simple himself, he preferred to their liqueurs and dainties his morning coffee and biscuit at the stall of a stout mulatto woman, who stood with her[Pg 50] shining copper kettle in the French market. There all the races of the world seemed to be gathered to idle or to bargain. He went also to the theatres, where he talked with the soldiers back from the Mexican war; among the rest, with General Taylor, soon to be President, a jovial, genial, laughter-loving old man, one of the plainest who ever went to the White House, where he died soon after his inauguration in 1849.

Whitman appears to have been thoroughly enjoying himself, when suddenly about the end of May, he made up his mind to return to the North. His brother Jeff, a lad of fifteen, who had accompanied him and was working in the printing office, was homesick and out of health; the climate with its malarial tendencies did not suit him. Walt was always devoted to this young brother, who had been his companion on many a Long Island holiday, tramping or sailing,[102] and becoming alarmed at his condition, hurried him away. There were other reasons which, he says, made him wish to leave the city, but as he does not specify[103] them himself, we can only follow the indications in guessing at their nature. We know they were not connected with his work: it is probable that they were private and personal.[104]

When asked in later years why he had never married, he would say either that it was impossible to give a satisfactory explanation,[105] although such an explanation might perhaps exist, or he would declare that, with an instinct for self-preservation, he had always avoided or escaped from entanglements which threatened his freedom.[106] These replies he made with an obvious reticence and reservation. He who professed to make so clean a breast of his own shortcomings, and who in his last years required that records of himself should err in being somewhat over personal, deliberately concealed certain important incidents in his life. There can, I[Pg 51] think, be only one interpretation of this singular state of affairs: that these incidents concerned others equally with himself, and that those others were unwilling to have them published. If they had been his, and his alone, he would have communicated them, but they were not.

Whatever Whitman’s duty in this matter, it behoves his biographer to present as full a picture as possible of his life, and to let no fact go by without notice; while the knowledge that Whitman himself could not disclose the whole truth, should only make us the more careful in our reading of the scanty facts which are known.

It seems that about this time Walt formed an intimate relationship with some woman of higher social rank than his own—a lady of the South where social rank is of the first consideration—that she became the mother of his child, perhaps, in after years, of his children; and that he was prevented by some obstacle, presumably of family prejudice, from marriage or the acknowledgment of his paternity.

The main facts can now hardly be disputed. Whitman put some of them on record in a letter to Addington Symonds during the last year of his life, designing to leave a fuller statement in the care of his executors. But this, through access of weakness, was never accomplished. Remarks which he let fall from time to time in private conversation seem to admit of no other interpretation than that I have put upon them.

In one of his poems[107] he vividly describes how once in a populous city he chanced to meet with a woman who cast her love upon him, and how they remained together till at last he tore himself away, to remember nothing of that city save her and her love. In spite of Whitman’s express desire that the poem should be regarded merely in its universal application—a desire which in itself seems to betoken a consciousness of self-betrayal—we cannot but recognise its autobiographical suggestion. And in the stress laid upon the part of the woman, we[Pg 52] may see a cause for Whitman’s reticence. If it was she who had pressed the relationship, it behoved him the more, for her sake, to keep silence, and to leave the determination of the relationship to her.

But perhaps the most important evidence upon this obscure passage of his story is to be found in the psychological development which we can, as I believe, trace in his character. It was but a short time after his Southern visit,[108] perhaps in the same year, that he began to sketch out some of the poems which afterwards took the form familiar to us in Leaves of Grass. Now these differ from his earlier writings in many ways, but fundamentally in their subjectivity. In them he sets out to put himself on record in a way he heretofore had not attempted, and this enterprise must, I take it, have had its cause in some quickening of emotional self-consciousness. That process may well have culminated a few years later in what has been described as “cosmic consciousness”; but before that culmination, Whitman’s experience must have contained elements which do not seem to have been present in the Whitman of Franklin Evans, or of the verses written upon the Mississippi. These elements, I believe, he acquired or began to acquire in the South.

Hitherto we have seen him as a young man of vigorous independence, eagerly observant of life, and delighting in his contact with it. Henceforward he enters into it in a new sense; some barrier has been broken down; he begins to identify himself with it. Strong before in his self-control, he is stronger still now that he has won the power of self-abandonment. Unconsciously he had always been holding himself back; at last he has let himself go. And to let oneself go is to discover oneself. Some men can never face that discovery; they are not ready for emancipation. Whitman was.

But who emancipated him? May we not suppose it was a passionate and noble woman who opened the[Pg 53] gates for him and showed him himself in the divine mirror of her love? Had Whitman been an egoist such a vision would have enslaved and not liberated his soul.

But if this woman loved him to the uttermost, why did he leave her? Why did he allow the foulest of reproaches to blacken that whitest of all reputations, a Southern lady’s virtue? Nowhere in the world could such a reproach have seemed more vile, more cruel. The only answer we can make is that it was, in some almost inexplicable way, her choice. And that somehow, perhaps by a fictitious marriage, this reproach was doubtless avoided; the woman’s family being readier to invent some subterfuge than to take a Northern journalist and artisan into their sacred circle. There is a poem which remained till recently in manuscript—a poem[109] of bitter sarcasm and marked power of expression—in which Whitman holds an aristocrat up to scorn. He never printed it himself, and this fact adds to the possibility that it may gain some of its force from personal suffering.

Whether Whitman met his lady again we do not know. There is no record of a second visit to the South, though there is no evidence to disprove such a visit; rather indeed, to the contrary, for Whitman speaks in one of his letters[110] of “times South” as periods in which his life lay open to criticism; and refers, elsewhere,[111] to his having lived a good deal in the Southern States. As he was in no position to reply to criticism upon this matter, he was careful not to arouse it.

Whatever lay behind his departure, Whitman left New Orleans on the 25th of May, 1848,[112] ascending the Mississippi in a river steamer between the monotonous flat banks. Jeff picked up at once.[113] They spent a few hours in St. Louis where the westward flowing streams of northern and of southern pioneers met and mingled.[114] Changing boats, and passing the mouth of the great yellow[Pg 54] Missouri, they made their way up the Illinois river for some two hundred miles, arriving after forty-eight hours at La Salle, whence a canal boat carried them to Chicago. Through the rich agricultural lands of Illinois they passed at a speed not exceeding three miles an hour.

They spent a day in the still very young metropolis of the North-west, travelling thence by way of the Great Lakes to Buffalo. The voyage occupied five glorious summer days. Whitman went on shore at every stopping place intensely interested in everything. He was so delighted with the State of Wisconsin, which was about this time admitted to the union, that he dreamed of settling in one of its new clean townships; and he carried away with him definite impressions of the towns of Milwaukee, Mackinaw, Detroit, Windsor, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

A week from La Salle he passed under the Falls of Niagara and saw the whirlpool; but coming at the end of so much wonder, the stupendous spectacle does not seem to have greatly impressed him. Twenty-four hours of continuous travel through the thickly settled country districts of New York State brought him to the old Dutch capital of Albany, whence descending the beautiful Hudson with its wooded high-walled mountain banks, he reached New York on the evening of 15th June.

He had been away from home four months, had travelled as many thousand miles, and had made acquaintance with seventeen of the States of the union. In New Orleans he had learnt the meaning of the South, from St. Louis he had looked into the new West, while in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and the coasts of Ontario, he had seen the rich corn-lands of the North-west under their first tillage. And he had felt the meaning of the Mississippi, that great river whose tributaries, from the Alleghanies to the Rockies, drain and fertilise half the arable land of America.

Besides the discovery in himself of a new world, a new hemisphere, Whitman came home filled with the sense of his American citizenship. A patriot from his childhood, from henceforward “these States,” as he[Pg 55] loved to call them, became the object of his passionate devotion. Not in their individuality alone—though this he recognised more than ever, regarding each in some degree as a nation—but above all in their union. Thus he came back to Brooklyn to take up his old vocation and his old acquaintances with a sense of enlargement: latent powers had been awakened within him and a new ideal which may once have been a childish dream, began to dominate his manhood, hitherto lacking in a clear purpose.

In the old days,[115] when his mother read the Bible to him and taught him something of its meaning, it had seemed to the child that the highest of all the achievements of manhood must be to make such another book as that. It had been written thousands of years ago by inspired men, to be completed some day by others as truly inspired as they. For he believed in the Quaker doctrine of the continuity of revelation, which is not strange to a child.

Such fancies in a child’s mind are apt to grow into a purpose: to dream, is to dream of something one will presently do. If the dream is wholly beyond the range of possible accomplishment, a cloud of disillusionment descending on the face of youth will blot it out; but if it is not, it may become an ideal which will shape the whole of manhood as sternly as any fate.

To be an American prophet-poet, to make the American people a book which should be like the Bible in spiritual appeal and moral fervour, but a book of the New World and of the new spirit—such seems to have been the first and the last of Whitman’s day-dreams. It must have come to him as a vague longing when he was still very young, and he was never so old as to lose it. Now on his return from this long journey, his mind full of America and full of profound and mystical thoughts concerning love and the soul and the soul’s relation to the world, the dream began to struggle in him for utterance. It was seven years before it found itself a body of words, but henceforward it took possession of his life.


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