Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

Whitman’s Philadelphia and Whitman’s Camden: Retrospect and Prospect
William Pannapacker
Hope College

            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 avails not,
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
    looked. [1]

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.” [2]   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. [3]    

            The Fulton 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 and Camden . . . 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. [4]

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 harried commuters.  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. [5]   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 Whitman.  And, 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 and Philadelphia. [6]  

So, 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 by Traubel). [7] 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 York, Boston, 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.

We 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.” [8]  

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. 

Whitman 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 life.

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.” [9]   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 inferiority complexes.

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. [10]   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). [11]   In 1854 alone, 314,000 immigrants came to Manhattan, although a high rate of infant mortality slowed population growth. [12]   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.” [13]   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.” [14]   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.” [15]   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 labor.  Living 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 of Christendom.” [16]   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 comradely affection.  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. [17]   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. [18]   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. [19]   Consequently, population density remained relatively low and the quality of housing relatively high even as the number of residents increased. 

Just 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 ownership.  This 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. [20]   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.

Though 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 promenaders.” [21]   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.” [22]

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. [23]   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 social problem.

            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. [24]    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. 

Though Philadelphia’s publishing 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 States.  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 Washington Square.  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. 

The 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. [25]   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 Camden.  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 three years. 

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.” [26]   “’Whitman was, from first to last, a boorish, awkward poseur,” writes Rebecca Harding Davis, author of “Life in the Iron Mills” and mother of the more famous author Richard Harding Davis.  “He sang of the workingman as of a god, but he never did an hour’s work himself if he could live by alms.” [27]

Whitman just rubbed some Philadelphians the wrong way.  “When [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.’” [28]  

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. 

After 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. [29] 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 of Pennsylvania: 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.” [30]   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. 

Whitman 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. [31]   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. 

Additionally, 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). [32] 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 assistant. [33]   So, there were many reasons why Whitman would be attracted to Philadelphia rather than to New York.  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 coast.  The 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. [34]  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. 

Camden 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. [35]   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.” [36]

            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 first.” [37]   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.” [38]

Whitman’s 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. [39]  

Living 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 circuit.  Whitman’s parents and several siblings soon joined him in the same tomb under the one name “Walt Whitman.” 

The 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”?  

If 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, spiritual grandfather”:
Where are 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? [40]

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." [41]  

[1] Leaves of Grass (1856), 212-213. 

[2] Ric Burns, James Sanders, and Lisa Ades, New York: An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 71. 

[3] Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975). 

[4] Whitman, Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 1963-64), 1:283-284.

[5] See Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: New York University Press, 1967); David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995); Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999). 

[6] For an exception, see Joseph Murphy, "The Loafer and the Loaf-Buyer: Whitman, Franklin, and Urban Space." Modern Language Studies 28 (Spring 1998), 41-54.

[7] On the Eakins-Whitman relationship see Ed Folsom, “Whitman’s Calamus Photographs,” Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies, ed. Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 193-219; William Innes Homer, "New Light on Eakins and Whitman in Camden." Mickle Street Review no. 12 (1990), 74-82; and Elizabeth Johns, Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 144-169; on Eakins and visual images, Eakins and the Photograph (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2004); not discussing Whitman at length but relevant are Martin A. Berger, Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).  On the Gilchrist relationship, see Marion Walker Alcaro, Walt Whitman’s Mrs. G: A Biography of Anne Gilchrist (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991).  On the Osler relationship, see Philip W. Leon, Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and His Physician (Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1995). 

[8] Leaves of Grass (1881-82), 323.

[9] Roger Asselineau, The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Personality (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960), 214. 

[10] Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive, 475. 

[11] Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 67, 123.

[12] Burns, 90. 

[13] Whitman, Daybooks and Notebooks of Walt Whitman, ed. Thomas L. Brasher (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 676. 

[14] Burns, 95.

[15] Whitman, Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora, ed. Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles H. Brown (State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press, 1950), 57.

[16] Whitman, New York Dissected: A Sheaf of Recently Discovered Newspaper Articles by the Author of Leaves of Grass, ed. Emory Holloway and Ralph Adimari (New York: Rufus Rockwell Wilson, 1936), 136. 

[17] Allen F. Davis and Mark H. Haller, ed., The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790-1940 (Philadelphia: Temple University press, 1973), 8.

[18] Caroline Golab, “The Immigrant and the City: Poles, Italians, and Jews in Philadelphia, 1870-1920,” The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790-1940, ed. Allen F. Davis and Mark H. Haller (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973), 205.

[19] Dorothy Gondos Beers, “The Centennial City, 1865-1876,” Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, ed. Russell F. Weigley (New York: Norton, 1982), 417-470. 

[20] Ibid, 421.

[21] Leaves of Grass (1855), 18.

[22] Whitman, Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 1963-64), 1:188-189. 

[23] Leaves of Grass (1855), 18.

[24] The most recent, comprehensive study is Russell F. Weigley, et al, Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: Norton, 1982). 

[25] Mark C. Carnes and Clyde Griffen, Meanings for Manhood: Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 221. 

[26] E. Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell, Our Philadelphia (Philadelphia and London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1914), 324-325.

[27] Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, The Literary History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1906), 414.

[28] Ibid, 413-414.

[29] See Joann P. Krieg, “’Don’t Let Us Talk of that Anymore’: Whitman’s Estrangement from the Costelloe-Smith Family” WWQR 17.3 (2000): 91-120. 

[30] Kathleen A. Foster and Cheryl Leibold, Writing About Eakins: The Manuscripts in Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 179.

[31] Johns, 59; for Whitman medical connections before his arrival in Philadelphia, see Robert Leigh Davis, Whitman and the Romance of Medicine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). 

[32] See Philip W. Leon, Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and His Physician (Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1995). 

[33] See Brian Burrell, "The Strange Fate of Whitman's Brain." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 20 (Winter/Spring 2003), 107-133.

[34] See Jeffery M. Dorwart, Camden County New Jersey: The Making of a Metropolitan Community, 1626-2000 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 98.

[35] Ibid, 97, 103.

[36] Paul W. Schopp, “Camden and Mickle Street: A Cultural History,” Mickle Street Review, No. 14. online; also see Lori Chambers, "Walt Whitman's Camden." Rutgers Magazine 78 (Fall 1998), 26-29;; Geoffrey M. Sill, "Camden, New Jersey," "Harleigh Cemetery," "Mickle Street House." In J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1998), 98-100, 266-267, 429-430. 

[37] Carpenter, Days with Walt Whitman (London: George Allen, 1906), 7-9. 

[38] Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, The Literary History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1906), 413.

[39] Pannapacker, Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship (New York and London: Routledge, 2004).

[40] Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California.”

[41] Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (1905), I:359.


Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place