Whitman’s Philadelphia and Whitman’s Camden: Retrospect and Prospect
Walt Whitman learned to love ferries when he was
boy, riding back and forth between then-rural Brooklyn and
the growing city of New York. “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” first published
in 1856 as “Sun-Down Poem,” expresses Whitman’s hope that
the life he knew would never change:
It avails not, neither time or place—distance
I am with you, you men and women of a generation,
or ever so many generations hence,
I project myself, also I return—I am with you,
and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and
sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd,
I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of
the river, and the bright flow, I was refreshed,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry
with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships,
and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I
Whitman’s dream of universal and eternal experience
seems naïve now. We
have become accustomed to transience: we grow up in a place,
we move away, we return, and find the places of our childhood—the
ones that seem eternal because they have made us who we
are—unalterably changed. And with these changes in place come changes
in people, who have no memory of the things that mean so
much to the returning exile.
In many respects, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is a
poem written from nostalgia, a desire to preserve a place
at a particular moment in time. The New York
and Brooklyn celebrated
in Whitman’s poetry, was, in part, a retrospective vision
projected on the future.
That same year, 1856, a writer in Harper’s
Monthly described New
York as “the largest and least loved
of any of our great cities.
Why should it be loved as a city?
It is never the same city for a dozen years altogether.”
Anyone over forty “finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of
the New York
he knew. If
he chances to stumble upon a few old houses not yet leveled,
he is fortunate. But
the landmarks, the objects, which marked the city to him,
as a city, are gone.”
By 1863, the year of the apocalyptic Draft Riots,
preserving New York as
a “knowable community,” to use Raymond William’s term, was
a task beyond the most visionary poet America has ever produced.
Street ferry became obsolete
when the Brooklyn Bridge opened on May 24, 1883. Whitman had been living away from New
York for 20 years by then (ten years in Washington, ten
years in Camden), and each time he returned “home” there
were fewer and fewer places associated with his memories.
In 1882, a year before the Brooklyn Bridge opened, Whitman wrote memorably about
the home of his old age in a manner that alluded to the
cities of his youth:
|Such a show as the Delaware presented an hour before sundown yesterday evening,
all along between Philadelphia
. . . It was full tide, a fair breeze from the southwest,
the water of a pale tawny color, and just enough motion
to make things frolicsome and lively. Add to these an approaching sunset of
unusual splendor, a broad tumble of clouds, with much
golden haze and profusion of beaming shaft and dazzle.
In the midst of all, in the clear drab of the
afternoon light, there steam’d up the river the large,
new boat, ‘the Wenonah,’ as pretty an object as you
could wish to see, lightly and swiftly skimming along,
all trim and white, cover’d with flags, transparent
red and blue, streaming out in the breeze. Only a new ferry-boat, and yet in its
fitness comparable with the prettiest product of Nature’s
cunning, and rivaling it.
High up in the transparent ether gracefully balanced
and circled four or five great sea hawks, while here
below, amid the pomp and picturesqueness of sky and
river, swam this creation of artificial beauty and motion
and power, in its way no less perfect.
We hear echoes of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in
this passage; the poem and Fulton Ferry’s unmentioned presence
remind the reader of the past, but it also looks to the
future. The river is the flow of time, and the sunset is
the approach of death that binds us all together. And out of the light comes the Wenonah, like Charon’s boat, to carry the poet
and the reader into immortality.
The name of the red-white-and-blue ferry (like Whitman’s
“Paumanok”) yokes the Native American past to the star-spangled
American present. The Wenonah is America, a continental
ferry ride into the future.
But in a larger sense, Whitman’s vision breaks down
the distinction between art and “Nature,” shipbuilding and
sunsets, the morning commute and the voyage of life, the
profane and the sacred, as well as prose and poetry.
No doubt, there is poetry in America’s bridges: they too are rife
with metaphoric potential.
But there is something categorically different about
the experience of a ferry ride—slow, meditative, liquid
in motion, jostled by one’s fellow passengers, mostly regulars—compared
with the quick, linear, isolated crossing of a bridge by
It is like the difference between a familiar residential
neighborhood and an anonymous high-rise apartment.
A ferry ride, for Whitman—one of his favorite activities
during the years that he lived in Camden—was, perhaps, exercise
in nostalgia, a means of reassuring himself that the “Good,
Gray Poet” was still “Walt Whitman,” one of the roughs;
just as the young man was one of a crowd, so the old man
was also. In Camden
and Philadelphia, at least, this was still possible.
For good reasons, most scholars of Whitman have explored
the sidewalks of his New York,
but, as I want to suggest here, there are also diamonds
in the streets of Whitman’s Philadelphia and Whitman’s Camden too. Of course, Whitman’s biographers have
given their primary attention to the years before Camden, when the poet was most actively creative.
They tend to accelerate and condense
Whitman’s biography after the Civil War, even though these
are the most thoroughly documented years of his life (perhaps
the surplus of materials is an obstacle to writing a coherent,
manageable biography). Also, the two works for which Whitman
is best known—the original Leaves and Drum-Taps—were
products of his New York
and Washington experiences. Perhaps the strain of capturing Whitman’s
life and art through these works leaves biographers too
tired to carry their projects—in exhaustive and intensively
speculative detail—all the way to the graveside of Walt
for biographers who cover these years, Whitman’s significance
seems to reside in a larger national and even international
context rather than on the smaller scale of Whitman in Camden
much of the intellectual and cultural history of Whitman’s
life between 1873 and 1892 has been overlooked—with the
exception of a few relationships (e.g., Whitman and Thomas
Eakins, Whitman and Anne Gilchrist, Whitman and William
Osler, and the inner circles of the Camden ménage described
This oversight is, perhaps a symptom
of a larger tendency in American scholarship during the
last century, for relatively little—almost nothing—has been
written about the literary history of Philadelphia between
the early national period and the beginnings of modernism. The last full treatment was the work of
Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer,
Ph.D., in his magisterial Literary
History of Philadelphia (1906), which—like Oberholtzer’s
contemporary at Harvard, Barrett Wendell, has little but
contempt for Whitman and the un-genteel strain of literature
and culture he represents. Nevertheless, Oberholtzer—particularly
the evident intensity of his engagement with the culture
wars of the fin de siecle—shows us that Philadelphia
and its neighbor Camden during the late-nineteenth century
were particularly productive and contentious in ways that
contemporary scholarship associates with other locations
and times. Consider the difference between the literary
and cultural scholarship available on New
and Chicago in this era compared with Philadelphia. No doubt, there are institutional reasons
for this; perhaps, most important are the presence of influential
research universities and the subsequent projection of regional
literary cultures such as New England Transcendentalism
on the entire nation. Recall that Barrett Wendell—though he
titled his monumental volume The Literary History of
America (1900)—should have more properly called
it a literary history of Harvard University. Regional grudges such as this have been
voiced before, most notably by University of Pennsylvania professor E. Digby Baltzell in his Puritan
Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979) and in some of
turn-of-the-century writings of Pennsylvania governor, Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker.
Perhaps, at this point, I should confess that
my interest in Whitman’s later years might also be an act
of nostalgia and regional chauvinism.
My connection with Whitman is a personal one.
I was born in Camden
in 1968, and I lived there with my parents until 1973.
lived in Camden
just long enough for me to remember Whitman’s house, which
my mother—who loved Whitman—brought me to see around the
age of four. I cannot remember what color it was then,
but the Mickle
Street of my memory seemed more
intimate and leafier than it is today.
I do not remember the prison.
In fact, my memories of Mickle
Street have blended with a series
of porch-fronted rowhouses in which I grew up in lower Northeast
section of Philadelphia. Those porches were often occupied
in warm weather, and every block seemed to have an old-timer
who sat out there in the summer and commented on our games
of wiffle ball and street hockey, who kept us from doing
other things like the omnipresent eye of God. When these neighborhood grandparents died,
several generations of kids who grew up and moved away sometimes
wondered what had become of them and never learned.
More than just a poet, Whitman represents, for me
at least, the qualities of the urban village that have been
irretrievably lost to a middle-aged, middle-class English
professor who lives in a Midwestern suburb.
Whitman said that his residency in Camden was a fortunate accident.
It befell him when he suffered a paralytic stroke
in 1873 and his brother George Whitman—then Camden's rather
un-poetic pipe inspector—and sister-in-law Louisa agreed
to put Walt up for a while at his house on Stevens Street
(which, sadly, burned down a decade ago).
It was a bad time for Whitman.
His mother had just died; his own death seemed imminent;
he had no friends in Camden—he had spent the last decade
in Washington—and the relocation severed his intimate relationship
with Peter Doyle.
Lodging in the attic of his brother’s house, Whitman
wrote an anguished poem called “Prayer of Columbus,” in
which he describes the aged explorer, like himself, as a
“A BATTER'D, wreck'd old man,/ Thrown on this savage shore,
far, far from home.”
But the relationship of Camden and Philadelphia must
have echoed the Brooklyn and New York Whitman had known
before he moved to Washington,
and, perhaps, even before that time, the New
York of the 1830s and 40s. As Whitman’s
health recovered, he made friends at the nearby factories
and rail yards, and on the ferries that regularly plied
the Delaware. (He knew most of the captains by name.)
Before long, he was lounging in Philadelphia's Mercantile Library on 10th
Street, browsing the second-hand
book stores on Ninth
Street, frequenting the downtown
printing offices, drinking at the waterfront saloons, buttonholing
the local journalists, and befriending the horse-car conductors
along Market Street.
also resumed his literary career.
Though most would agree that his greatest achievements
as a poet were behind him, Whitman’s overall productivity
in terms of prose writing, networking, and the stimulation
of publicity was greater than any time in his life.
While living in his brother’s house, Whitman published
two new editions of Leaves (1876, 1881-82), Memoranda During the War (1875), Two Rivulets (1878), and Specimen Days and Collect (1882-83); after
he moved to Mickle
Street, Whitman published November Boughs (1888), Good-Bye My Fancy (1891), the “Deathbed
Edition” of Leaves
(1891-92), and The Complete
Prose Works (1892).
Overall, Whitman’s output during these years was
substantial, considering his precarious health, and all
of it was crucial for the consolidation of his reputation
as a poet. Camden was the city in which
Whitman finally found the fame that had eluded him his entire
Still, scholars often shake their heads at the
presence of Whitman in Camden. “The setting must also have been
depressing,” writes Roger Asselineau in 1960, “Camden was, and still is, to a large extent a
gray, dirty, industrial suburb.
He could not but feel severely deprived after having
known the nobly designed avenues of Washington,
the vibrant life of New York,
and the open spaces of Long Island.” Asselineau presents Whitman as bearing up
heroically under the trauma of having to live in Camden: “Instead of worrying and chafing, he
bore the trial calmly.”
Such views of Camden—and Philadelphia—are not uncommon, even among lifelong
residents; indeed, as I can attest from personal experience,
both cities have long manifested a kind of pride in their
Still, the negative view of Camden and Philadelphia among Whitman’s biographers leads
to several questions: If Camden was so bad, why did Whitman
stay, particularly after his health and economic circumstances
would have permitted him to move elsewhere?
Back to Washington, say, or Brooklyn? A
decade after he arrived, he was unwilling to leave Camden when his brother’s household moved to Burlington, New
Jersey, in 1884.
Why did he not return to New
York or Brooklyn?
New York, for all its subsequent
triumphs as a metropolis, was going through a difficult
period of growth.
Whitman’s experiences there in the turbulent 1850s
prompted his efforts to create a vision of urban harmony
in the 1855 Leaves.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, large parts
of New York were expanding beyond the capacity
of the government to maintain much more than the semblance
of civilization. The “Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty
thousand in a week,” celebrated by Whitman in “Mannahatta”
(1860), appeared to many natives, including Whitman, as
a growing class of seemingly inassimilable, impoverished,
and dangerous outsiders.
In the thirty years before the Civil War,
the population of New
York grew from about 200,000 to
800,000 (and by 1900 the population would swell to 3.4 million).
In 1854 alone, 314,000 immigrants came
although a high rate of infant mortality slowed population
Even though London was larger and Paris
was more dense, New
York was much more diverse by the
1840s. Whitman observes, “the great number of
languages spoken daily in the city of New York, the classification
amounting to no less than
eighty different languages (not dialects), in constant
use in the city.”
And, to many natives, some of these people
seemed too alien to ever conceptualize as “Americans.” George Templeton Strong in 1857 writes,
“Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us
in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.”
It is worth recalling, that Whitman had
attacked the Irish in the Aurora
in 1842 in much stronger terms: “bands of filthy wretches,
whose very touch was offensive to a decent man, drunken
loafers; scoundrels whom the police and criminal courts
would be ashamed to receive in their walls . . . disgusting
objects bearing the form human.”
Whitman celebrated diversity, up to a
point, and that point seems to have been reached long before
Whitman relocated to Camden.
By 1850 nearly half of New
York’s population was foreign-born,
most of them crowded into ramshackle tenements.
As the middle classes began to flee major cities
for the emerging suburbs, the urban fabric was ripped apart
by the struggles of unregulated capital and impoverished
above the store was replaced by the morning commute.
Mixed-function neighborhoods became segregated into
commercial and residential districts based on race, ethnicity,
and extreme class polarization. Meanwhile, as Martin Scorsese
has reminded us in the film Gangs of New York (2002), immigrants and
native-born Americans fought actual battles with each other
for dominance over neighborhoods.
In 1849, the widening gulf between classes, produced
the Astor Place Riots at which militia fired into a crowd
of 8,000, killing 22 and wounding at least 150 more. For all his famous celebration of New
York, Whitman also described it
as one “the most crime-haunted and dangerous cities in all
By the time Whitman wrote Democratic
Vistas in 1871, the “Mannahatta” of his memory had grown
almost beyond any reasonable belief in the capacity of his
poetry to comprehend it or assuage its tensions.
In contrast, the "City of Brotherly Love" should have
sounded appealing to Whitman, the self-proclaimed poet of
Philadelphia, of course, was not without problems, but there
were some crucial distinctions that prevented the city from
suffering the extremes experienced by the residents of New York. Philadelphia probably experienced fewer growing pains than
any other major American city in that era; between 1860
and 1900 New York multiplied its population by 4.26, Washington by 4.57, Boston
by 3.15, and Philadelphia by 2.25.
The foreign-born population of Philadelphia only grew by
86,000 between 1870 and 1890, and a substantial percentage
were already English-speaking and skilled workers who could
readily find employment.
In 1870 the population of Philadelphia was a respectable 674,000 (the second largest),
but it was not geographically constricted like Boston and New
York; it could expand indefinitely,
even though it was already the largest American city in
terms of square miles.
Consequently, population density remained
relatively low and the quality of housing relatively high
even as the number of residents increased.
as Pennsylvania had once
been regarded as the “best poor man’s country” Philadelphia was called “The City of Homes.”
In the late nineteenth century, Philadelphia had unusually high rates of home
was the result of more affordable real estate, but it was
also an outcome of the early founding of building and loan
associations, a generally thriving regional economy in which
workers’ wages were rising (in part due to slower rates
if immigration and nascent forms of labor organization that
protected a local artisanal culture that declined at least
a generation earlier in other cities). The average worker in New York or Boston could
seldom save enough to buy a starter home, and the quality
of housing in New York’s
tenements and Boston’s wooden three-deckers was generally inferior to Philadelphia’s
brick row houses.
In 1867 alone, about 4,500 row houses were built
in Philadelphia. In 1880, Philadelphia had 5.7 occupants per dwelling, while New
York had 16.36, and Boston had 8.25. Also, the rapid expansion of street railways
brought more land into development, keeping prices down. There were already 129 miles in 1864,
and 212 by 1892.
It’s worth noting that these cars were
open to black citizens after 1867, and Philadelphia was among the first cities to encourage
the growth an African-American middle-class of homeowners.
Philadelphia, like other cities, experienced some trauma
as a result of more than doubling its population in forty
years, it is not an exaggeration to say that Philadelphia
and Camden were, relative to the other major East Coast
cities, among the most attractive to working- and lower-middle
class residents, many of whom increasingly had the education
and leisure to take an interest in art and literature, typically
the accoutrements of middle-class consumer culture.
It is not a coincidence that in this period consumer
culture flourished in many famous Philadelphia department
stores such as Lit Brothers, Strawbridge’s, Gimbel’s, and
John Wanamaker’s, though the latter would not sell Leaves
of Grass in his world-famous emporium on Market Street.
We often read Whitman’s poetic catalogues and
imagine that he is describing antebellum New York: “The blab of the pave . . . .
the tires of carts and sluff of bootsoles and talk of the
It was technique that Whitman had used
perhaps too many times in previous poems to apply this method
to his experiences in Philadelphia
and Camden in the 1870s, but
he does it nonetheless in some of his memorable prose writing
from this time. In
1879, Whitman described the “The First Spring Day on Chestnut Street” in downtown Philadelphia:
|Doubtless, there were plenty of hard-up folks
along the pavements, but nine-tenths of the myriad-moving
human panorama to all appearance seem’d flush, well-fed,
and fully provided. At all events it was good to be on Chestnut
street yesterday. The peddlers on the sidewalk—(“sleeve-buttons,
three for five cents”)—the handsome little fellow with
canary-bird whistles—the cane men, toy men, toothpick
men—the old woman squatted in a heap on the cold stone
flags, with her basket of matches, pins and tape—the
young Negro mother, sitting, begging, with her two coffee-color’d
twins on her lap—the beauty of the cramm’d conservatory
of rare flowers, flaunting reds, yellows, snowy lilies,
incredible orchids, at the Baldwin mansion near Twelfth
street—the show of fine poultry, beef, fish, at the
restaurants—the china stores, with glass and statuettes—the
luscious tropical fruits—the street cars plodding along,
with their tintinnabulating bells—the fat, cab-looking,
rapidly driven one-horse vehicles of the post-office,
squeez’d full of coming or going letter carriers, so
healthy and handsome and manly-looking, in their gray
uniforms—the costly books, pictures, curiosities, in
the windows—the gigantic policeman at most of the corners—will
all be readily remember’d and recognized as features
of this principal avenue of Philadelphia.”
As with Whitman’s
passage on the Wenonah, the memory of antebellum
New York lies behind these lines; the rhythms
of Whitman’s descriptions fall easily into those of “Song
of Myself” (though he also references onetime Philadelphian
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells”). The content of this description, too,
suggests an invidious comparison with Whitman’s former home:
there are, of course, “hard-up folks” in Philadelphia, but ninety percent seem “flush, well-fed, and fully provided.” Whitman’s disciples, such as Horace Traubel
(descended from German socialists)—along with Whitman’s
claims of old-age poverty—have succeeded to the point that
it is sometimes too easy to think of Whitman as a proletarian
revolutionary when his poetry, prose, and conversation indicate
indisputably that he was never committed to political radicalism.
Whitman’s views are more consistent with those of
the upwardly-aspirant working-classes or lower-middle classes
than the socialists or anarchists like Emma Goldman who
admired his poetry.
The First International met in Philadelphia in 1874, as did the International
Workingmen’s Association and Knights of Labor in 1876, but
Whitman had nothing to do with them.
He always refused to endorse political parties,
and he just as soon accepted money from Andrew Carnegie
as Edward Carpenter.
Whitman’s portrayal of Chestnut Street, a corridor
of shops and shoppers, suggests the Franklinesque beginnings
of upward mobility for the new arrivals: peddlers of buttons,
matches, pins, and tape, graduating to fruit and flower
stalls, the butchers, the restaurateurs, the book and china
shops, and finally, the Baldwin mansion—built by a manufacturer
of locomotives, one of the economic foundations of the city,
which Whitman had celebrated in his poetry three years earlier:
“Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of
the continent” (“To a Locomotive in Winter”). And, just as the original catalogue from
“Song of Myself” describes “the policeman with his star
quickly working his passage to the centre of the crowd,”
Whitman takes note of the presence of the gigantic
cops at every corner who maintain the civic order needed
for economic prosperity.
And yet, this is a prosperity, as Whitman
observes, that still excludes the begging “Negro mother”
of twins. Philadelphia was better than New York in many respects—where
the memory of Draft Riots continued to discourage African-American
settlement—but racism and economic inequality was a universal
Nevertheless, this period of population growth was
also Philadelphia’s cultural
renaissance: the era of Thomas Eakins, Frank Furness, Henry
Osawa Tanner, Thomas Moran, Mary Cassatt, John Peto, Alexander
Milne Calder, Bayard Taylor, Thomas Buchanan Read, Rebecca
Harding Davis, Charles Godfrey Leland, and Walt Whitman.
In addition to many libraries, lecture
halls, and museums, Philadelphia
possessed the Pennsylvania
Academy of the
Fine Arts, the American Philosophical Society, the Academy
of Music, the Franklin
Institute, the Academy
of Natural Sciences, and the University of Pennsylvania. The "Birthplace of American
Independence," the onetime national capital, the host city
of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, a center of railways
and shipping—situated conveniently between New York (the
capital of commerce and publishing) and Washington (the
capital of political power)—Philadelphia was an ideal venue
for Whitman, and his expanding corps of disciples, in which
to promote the poet and his poetry on the local, national,
and international stages.
industry had lost some ground to Boston
and New York since the
1830s, when it had a near-monopoly on the inland book trade,
it was still one of the major publishing and bookselling
centers in the United
The Matthew Carey publishing dynasty that started
in the eighteenth century continued strong through the nineteenth,
as did Lippincott’s, another house with roots in Franklin’s era. There were also the houses of Peterson,
Childs, McClure, and Forney, many of them clustered around
There was a healthy trade in medical publishing,
capitalized on by Lippincott but also by newer firms such
as W. B. Saunders. And there were a great number of smaller
presses affiliated with the bookshops and job printers. Rees Welsh and David McKay, for example,
provided a home for Whitman when the prestige house of Osgood
in Boston withdrew Leaves
under pressure from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s
Office. Also, several national magazines were
published in Philadelphia, including Lippincott’s Monthly, Peterson’s, and the North American. A bewildering array of newspapers such as
the respectable Philadelphia
Public Ledger was supplemented by the Evening Bulletin, the Evening Telegraph, the
Philadelphia Record, the Philadelphia Times, the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, the Philadelphia Press, the Philadelphia News, the Farm Journal, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. There were also several papers on the New
Jersey side: the Camden New Republic, the Camden Post, the Camden Courier, and the West Jersey Press.
late nineteenth century was also the golden age of fraternal
societies. Nationally, nearly two out of every five men
were members of some fraternal organization, but the percentage
was probably even higher Philadelphia.
Among these were the Shakespeare Society,
the Social Art Club, the Philadelphia Sketch Club, the Orpheus
Club, the Philharmonic Society, the Union League, the Franklin
Inn, the Clover Club, the 5 O’clock Club, and several clubs
that were friendly to Whitman, particularly after they were
infiltrated by Horace Traubel and his friends: the Penn
Club, the Contemporary Club; and the Pepper Pot Club. Traubel and other Whitman supporters eventually
founded a club dedicated to entirely to Whitman; it became
the Walt Whitman Fellowship in 1894 and continued active
until 1919 when Traubel died, although the legacy of that
club still lingers in Camden and elsewhere.
Although the promotional activities
of Whitman and his admirers were international in scope,
he exerted considerable effort at establishing a reputation
in Philadelphia, particularly the year before 1876,
when national attention was focused on the city. While enormous preparations were being
made for Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition, Whitman
prepared his Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass in
two volumes. Possibly hoping for an invitation to read the
opening poem of the exposition, Whitman changed the title
of After All, Not to Create Only, which he read at
the opening of New
York's National Industrial Exhibition
in 1871, to "Song of the Exposition."
In January 1876 he also published an anonymous article
in the West Jersey Press exposing how he had been
abused by American publishers and now lived in poverty in
The article was reprinted in London
and caused a press war between England and the United States, which raged most fiercely in the
Philadelphia and Camden papers mentioned above. Although these
efforts failed to gain Whitman the opening poem of the exposition,
they did gain him several influential supporters in Philadelphia. George W. Childs, publisher of Philadelphia’s leading paper,
the Public Ledger, became an important patron. In 1878, Childs offered to publish an
edited version of Leaves of Grass. Whitman
declined the offer, but the poet did become a frequent overnight guest of the Childs during the next
Still, whatever Childs might have thought, many
influential Philadelphians—whose Social-Register
universe extended to New York
and Boston—formed distinctly negative views about
the author of Leaves of Grass.
Whitman “was so unexpected in Philadelphia,” writes Elizabeth Robins Pennell,
who met him when she was a child, “I could almost have imagined
that it was for the humour of the thing he came to settle
where his very appearance was an offence to the proprieties.”
“Walt Whitman, from top to toe,” she continues, “proclaimed
the man who did not bother to think of the conventions,
much less respect them.”
“’Whitman was, from first to last, a boorish,
writes Rebecca Harding Davis, author of “Life in the Iron
Mills” and mother of the more famous author Richard Harding
sang of the workingman as of a god, but he never did an
hour’s work himself if he could live by alms.”
Whitman just rubbed some Philadelphians the wrong
[Charles Godfrey] Leland met him one time,” writes Ellis
Paxson Oberholtzer, “Walt took him into a squalid little
bar-room and introduced him to a number of tramps.” Leland had a taste for the Bohemian, but,
writes Oberholtzer, others “did not find such methods of
living consistent with their notions of poetry.”
Dr. Reynell Coates, for example, complained: “I do
not object to his [Whitman’s] going to public houses and
getting his tipple upon my credit, but when he impersonates
me and does it, it is too much, and I will not stand it.’”
Some this resistance began to decline after the suppression
of the 1881-82 Osgood edition of Leaves of Grass in
Boston. This event confirmed the belief among
many educated, progressive Philadelphians that Whitman
was indeed the victim of Comstockery, typical of those puritans
in Boston, and perhaps among the prim Philadelphia gentlemen at
the Union League. The desire to seem modern began to eclipse
the impulse to remain genteel and respectable among some
Philadelphians by the 1880s. Using the plates of the Osgood
edition, Rees Welsh and Company of Philadelphia risked
prosecution by publishing Leaves of Grass in 1882. As a result of the publicity of the Boston
banning, Rees Welsh sold about six thousand copies
of Leaves—the greatest success of Whitman’s career
as a poet up to that time.
the Boston suppression of
Leaves, new admirers from Philadelphia began to rally around Whitman. Talcott
Williams, a journalist for the Philadelphia Press, managed to get the Boston prohibition of Leaves
revoked. Robert Pearsall Smith, a glass manufacturer
and Quaker evangelist, visited Whitman in Camden
at the encouragement of his daughter, Mary Whitall Smith,
and the poet soon became a guest at their house in Germantown.
About this time Whitman also was
a frequent guest of Thomas Donaldson, a Philadelphia
lawyer who provided Whitman with free ferry passes and organized
a collection to buy him a horse and buggy in 1885. During
the 1880s Whitman acquired other notable allies in Philadelphia, including two on the faculty of the University
Horace Howard Furness, a Shakespearean scholar, and Daniel
Garrison Brinton, an anthropologist. Other new friends included
George Henry Boker, a dramatist, poet, and diplomat; Charles
Godfrey Leland, a writer and translator of Heine; and, most
notably of all, Thomas Eakins, former director of the Academy of Fine Arts.
It is suggestive
that, in the 1890s, Eakins and his friends referred to themselves
as “all us Whitman fellows.”
Of course, Eakins painted Whitman in 1887,
and, perhaps, he even photographed him in the nude. Both possessed a personal vision that
was, in many respects, out of favor with the literary and
artistic establishments of their time.
Both shared an interest in women’s education, coupled
with frankness, open sexuality, and the struggle against
Victorian cult of domesticity. Both prepared major works for the Centennial
Exposition and were rejected; Eakins’ masterpiece, The Gross Clinic (1875), was displayed
with some insignificant portraits of medical men. Whitman was publicly mocked by Bayard
Taylor, who was invited—instead of Whitman—to give the opening
poem for the Exposition.
Whitman lost his job at the Department of the Interior
in 1865 for being the author of Leaves, and Eakins
was forced to resign from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fines Arts in 1886, for removing
the loincloth from a male model to explain the structure
of the pelvis to a class of respectable female students.
And, of course, both men dramatized—and scripted
for themselves—a public role as uncompromising, heroic artists.
and Eakins also shared an interest in medicine; they had
a mutual friend in the physician S. Weir Mitchell, who developed
the “rest cure,” described memorably by Charlotte Perkins
Gilman in her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Philadelphia had been a center of medical research
in the late-eighteenth century.
Despite the growth of New York
and institutional power of Boston,
New York doctor Austin Flint still characterized Philadelphia as the leading
medical city in 1876.
Indeed, Philadelphia may have been one of the leading
centers of medicine in the world at that time. Anne Gilchrist brought her daughter Beatrice
to Philadelphia so she could
get clinical training that was not available to women in
England. Anne was not simply, as she has sometimes
been portrayed, a love-smitten widow grabbing on to an understandably
reluctant American poet.
Whitman was acquainted with one of the most influential
physicians of the nineteenth century: Sir William Osler,
who lived in Philadelphia from 1884-89,
and provided care for Whitman at the request of Whitman
disciple Richard Maurice Bucke, who was the first president
of the American Medico-Psychological Association (now the
American Psychiatric Association).
Indeed, it seems that physicians were
as fascinated by Whitman as the artists with whom they were
often friends. In
1892 Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute obtained the
poet’s brain for the collections of the American Anthropometric
Society, although the “Good, Gray Poet’s” grey matter was
apparently splattered on a laboratory floor by a clumsy
So, there were many
reasons why Whitman would be attracted to Philadelphia
rather than to New
But what about Camden?
Why did Whitman remain there after 1884, instead
of finding an affordable rowhouse in Philadelphia?
Camden had developed as a point of access from Philadelphia to New Jersey,
where roads and, later, railways led easily to New York and the Atlantic
Civil War had boosted Camden’s
economic base, which included textiles, leather goods, shipbuilding,
cigars, chemicals, dyes, fertilizer, machine tools, and
iron. In 1871, city solicitor Alden Scovel described
Camden as “the metropolis
of West Jersey.”
The were developing plans for the first
police department, a fire department, new school districts,
gas, street lighting, and a horsecar street railway.
It was a good place for an ambitious person like
Whitman’s brother George to rise rapidly in the social scale.
By the time Whitman arrived in 1873, Camden was a growing industrial and residential
community similar in many ways to the Brooklyn Whitman knew
in his youth.
had a bustling but modest population of 41,659 in 1880;
many residents were descended from the older English and
Quaker stock, but there were increasing numbers of immigrants
from Ireland, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Poland, Russia,
and the American South.
Unlike many more developed cities, the
youth and heterogeneity of Camden prevented it from fragmenting
into ethnic ghettos, and there was a also a high degree
of class diversity on individual streets, as the variety
of housing types on Mickle Street, even today, demonstrate.
As Paul Schopp writes, Mickle “was a street with
a diverse mixture of social classes . . . Intelligentsia
commingling with shoemakers; artistic men and women and
professionals residing in the shadow of tradesmen and railroaders;
and the children of merchants and managers playing with
those of common laborers.”
By all accounts, Whitman enjoyed this diversity. “After some conversation Whitman proposed a walk
across to Philadelphia,”
writes Edward Carpenter about his 1877 visit to Camden, “The life of the streets and of the people
was so near, so dear.
The men on the ferry steamer were evidently old friends
. . . The man or woman selling fish at the corner of the
street, the tramway conductor, the loafers on the pavement—a
word of recognition from Walt, or as often from the other
For the reasons that Carpenter admired
Whitman, Oberholzer disdains him: “He had his ‘Howdy’ for
all kinds of persons—deck-hands, vagrants, mechanics, for
people of both sexes, all colors, ages and nationalities,
and on the Philadelphia side would sit long in a chair furnished
him by an Italian street vender, munching peanuts, or make
friendships with the drivers of the horse-cars who came
to the foot of Market Street, often mounting the stool on
the front platform which was resigned to him.”
residency in Camden gave him membership in a vibrant urban
village, where an old man on a stoop could become a figure
in the community.
Many of the youthful companions of his old age—most
notably, Horace Traubel—met him this way. The world came to Whitman’s door
in Camden in a way I suspect would not have been the case
had he lived in Philadelphia, much less New York, where
he would been swallowed up by the immensity of the cities.
Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, Whitman’s eventual
success—his literary canonicity—has been built, like Eakins’,
on the inverse structure of the literary field, in which
the appearance of failure in one’s own time becomes a basis
for canonization in subsequent years.
in an obscure industrial suburb counteracted the costs of
Whitman’s tendencies towards becoming an eminent Victorian,
the guest of Childs, the recipient of patronage from industrial
magnates such as Andrew Carnegie, the “Good, Gray Poet”
lionized at Madison Square Theater in 1887, and collected
in expurgated volumes such as Gems from Walt Whitman
and the proposed children’s book Leaves
of Grass, Junior. What are we to make of Walt Whitman Cigars
and Walt Whitman’s alleged endorsement of Old Crow Whiskey? Residence in Camden—particularly in retrospect,
as the city declined—crowds out the seeming contradictions
of Whitman’s later career.
Born initially of necessity, Whitman’s residence
in Camden was part of the
performance of his poverty and neglect on a stage that was
much larger than the Delaware Valley. Whitman was getting to be a big fish by
the time he came Camden, but he was made even bigger by what later
generations would regard as the small-mindedness those who
didn’t want him in their posh drawing rooms or at their
Centennial Exposition. Who remembers Bayard Taylor now? Is there a note of revenge against the
so called “Genteel Tradition” that lingers in our satisfaction
at this circumstance of cultural memory and forgetting? Why does this neglect please us? Why does the commemoration of Whitman
often seem so self-congratulatory?
Thanks to donations from British admirers—proud
of their sophistication in relation to wealthy American
philistines—and the money raised by the succes de scandale
of being banned in Boston, Whitman was able to buy a
modest rowhouse—though called it a “shanty”—at 328 Mickle
Street for $1,750, no piddling sum in those days. In a few years he began to make elaborate
and expensive plans for his burial in Camden at the New
Harleigh Cemetery, even when he had opportunities to be buried
elsewhere at no cost, such as Laurel Hill in Philadelphia. Again, Harleigh, like Camden, was a smaller pond
where there would be almost no competition on the pilgrimage
parents and several siblings soon joined him in the same
tomb under the one name “Walt Whitman.”
poet’s admirers—and the local Chamber of Commerce—cherished
hopes that, one day, Camden would become an American Stratford-on-Avon;
that pilgrims would come from all over the world to walk
the streets of the “Good, Gray Poet.” At the highpoint of Camden’s economic development
in the 1920s, a movie theater and a large hotel were named
for Whitman. Both
have since been demolished, but it’s worth remembering that
there was an era when people sent their “Greetings from
Camden” to envious friends and relatives. What might have happened to Whitman
if Camden had succeeded? Would we still value him the same way
if he did not seem so embattled?
Would we have grown tired of him if Camden
had become the metropolis of New
Jersey, home of “Walt World” and
“Whitman Media Enterprises, International”?
Whitman had nothing to offer beyond his intuitive mastery
of the tactics of literary longevity, we might not be so
interested in his poetry. For all of Whitman’s shrewd image-constructions,
there remains a compelling vision of an idealized America—the lost childhood of our national
identity—that assuages cynicism and has attracted readers
for a century and a half.
Whitman loved Camden; it welcomed him
when he thought his life was over, and it gave him a chance
to relive the some of the experiences of his youth.
And Camden will always be associated with him.
Fifty years ago, during the centenary of the
first Leaves, Allen Ginsberg, asked his “heroic,
we going, Walt Whitman?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit
poling his ferry and
you got out
on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
In response to Ginsberg, I imagine Whitman stepping
off that boat in the afterlife, thinking of Camden, blurred
with the older memories of Brooklyn, and saying, as he once
did, "Give my love to all the boys at the ferry—tell them
I dream of the ferry: of the water—of the boats going across—of
the wagons—everything: it all belongs to me."