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

“I see all the prisoners in the prisons”: Poetry and Poverty at 330 Mickle Boulevard
Mercy Romero University of California-Berkeley 

Salut au monde!
What cities the light or warmth penetrates I penetrate those cities myself,
All islands to which birds wing their way I wing my way myself.
Toward you all, in America’s name,

I raise high the perpendicular hand, I make the signal,
To remain after me in sight forever,
For all the haunts and homes of men.

-Walt Whitman, from Salut au Monde! (1881)

We must take stock of the nostalgia for empire, as well as the anger and resentment it provokes in those who were ruled, and we must try to look carefully and integrally at the culture that nurtured the sentiment, rationale, and above all the imagination of empire. And we must also try to grasp the hegemony of the imperial ideology, which by the end of the 19th century had been completely embedded in the affairs of cultures whose less regrettable features we still celebrate.

-Edward Said, from Culture and Imperialism


In 1889, “Camden, the drab town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, did not have much to boast of. The New York Sun had once joked that it was the refuge for those in doubt, debt, or despair.” [1] In 2002, one journalist described Camden as a “hellish pocket of poverty in the fourth-wealthiest state in the United States.” [2] What does it mean to visit Walt Whitman’s small Camden home, a museum and a National Historic Landmark, as it sits across the street from a large county jail that is overcrowded with imprisoned people, and to encounter Leaves of Grass in this place? Henri Lefebvre asks: “If space embodies social relationships, how and why does it do so? And what relationships are they?” [3]   My essay explores the embodiment and narration of relationships across this Camden Boulevard -- how these “houses” stage a peculiar silence and haunting.

Looking out through windows of glass in 1884, or from behind plexiglass in 2005, Walt Whitman and many others have historically appreciated, longed for, and degraded this landscape; how do these stances in place gesture towards and shadow democratic freedom and movement?  Daniel Trachtenberg argues that Whitman’s democracy is “ a word he equates more with religion and morality than with representative government and universal suffrage.” [4] I will explore one such tension within the sign of democracy -- morality and government, as morality and government also signify the gesture, organization, and management of the self that threads a complex sexual body. 

Together, the Walt Whitman House and the Camden County jail are both the neglected stage and choreography of peculiar shadows that gesture towards freedom and merely and painfully recall movement. Whitman’s poem “Salut Au Monde!” catalogues the diversity of his voice, the range and imagination of American democracy. In this poem, as on Mickle Boulevard, the body is fragmented, and movement is shadowed and shot through with the tense sign of democracy. Whitman writes:

Toward you all, in America’s name,
I raise high the perpendicular hand, I make the signal,
To remain after me in sight forever,
For all the haunts and homes of men

And as Avery Gordon writes of haunts: “Following the ghosts is about making a contact that changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located. It is about putting life back in where only a vague memory or a bare trace was visible to those who bothered to look.” [5]

Through a museum, a jail, and a poem, this paper rethreads the poet’s words, as to what it means to be “leftover” in Camden, and the sexual and social suffering that haunts this street and these “homes.” 

The house at 328 Mickle Boulevard displays the artifacts of this giant author’s life, the everyday pieces of furniture and photos that signify the many presences of an emergent and historically recognizable nineteenth-century working class American culture. Today, with much effort, the house is kept safe from decay and demolition. What is the value of this representational space? This is an intimate museum, a home; it is also the space of an American historical figure, the poet and the author. Thus, making his home into a landmark and a museum must produce a narrative that corresponds with the life works of the author and the state of his house, its condition and embedding in a city and landscape that has changed.  For example, a narrative from Preservation Online magazine:

Whitman received many visitors there, including Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Charles Dickens. Some of their reactions were unsettingly similar to those of contemporary visitors: They couldn’t figure out why Whitman lived in Camden, which was then, as it is now, a depressed pocket of urban decay overshadowed by Philadelphia, its neighbor across the Delaware River. In 1892, Elbert Hubbard called Camden, a ‘great, sandy, monotonous waste of straggling buildings.’ Visitors to Mickle Street (now Mickle Boulevard) no longer encounter a teeming, dirty, noisy neighborhood. Today, the block is aggressively empty and austere, a victim of failed urban renewal. A county jail looms across the street from the Whitman House [6]

The Walt Whitman House is located in a very visually outstanding urban landscape. However, it is not aggressively empty; the jail across the street is home to too many people. Like the above passage, this jail too disappears African American and Puerto Rican and poor people as crisis; they are part of the devastation that cradles the Walt Whitman House. How might we theorize this silence and haunting? Perhaps a potential for violent resistance, and the human suffering living and haunting this boulevard create a crisis in representation? Edward Said writes, “Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about image and imaginings.” [7]

Safety and crisis are underlying concepts and preoccupations appearing in accounts of the city as well. The residents, free or here, imprisoned, are marked as bodies that generate crisis and are shadowy presences in the narratives. Foucault writes:

There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourse.  (27)

These forms of silence, the unspeakable or unspoken, hang outside the Whitman House. For example, the backdoor of the Camden County jail overlooks the Walt Whitman House. According to a recent census “more than 800 of the city’s 79,904 residents have recently been released from prison and are under parole supervision.” [8] This is the door that all men and women must pass through when they become prisoners in this overcrowded jail. In “Salut Au Monde!” Whitman writes: “I see all the prisoners in the prisons.” If you turn around on that doorstep, the last thing you see literally is the Walt Whitman House. This is your last glimpse of your body not organized by the threat of sexual violence, and the world unmediated by walls. In his discussion of the “exhibitionary complex,” Tony Bennett reveals the ordering of social power and modes of self-regulation/government, through the figure of the museum and the visual economy of exhibition:

This power marked out the distinction between the subjects of power not written within the national body, but as organized by the many rhetorics of imperialism, between that body and other, ‘non-civilized’ peoples upon whose bodies the effects of power were unleashed with as much force and theatricality as had been manifest on the scaffold. (89)

Between this museum and this jail on Mickle Boulevard, sexuality is the spectacle and brutality of incarceration; freedom is the imposed order of self-management, parole.

Walt Whitman sought the body and the natural world in his poetry. His house remains in a place, a boulevard where the green of nature is gone and the sexual body is highly repressed, segregated, and punished, learning to see and regulate itself from the side of power. Betsy Erkkila writes of Whitman’s political body:

Celebrating the body as the luxuriant growth of nature and sexual energy as the regenerative law of the universe, Whitman sings of masturbation, the sexual organs, and the sexual act; he is one of the first poets to write of the ‘body electric,’ of female eroticism, homosexual love, and the anguish of repressed desire. By equating democracy with sexual liberation, Whitman also became the first poet to provoke among his unsympathetic readers what was (and perhaps still is) the deepest fear of democracy in America – namely, that in its purest form democracy would lead to a blurring of sexual bounds and thus to a breakdown of a social and bourgeois economy grounded in the management of the body and the polarization of male and female spheres. [9]

Many journalists create Camden as a barren wasteland, a spectacle and a warning. Such narratives create the current residents of color as subjects whose value is constituted by their ability to be figuratively displaced and camouflaged by a ruined or open landscape. These are the continued tropes of empire. From a description of a Camden neighborhood not far from Whitman’s house, sexuality emerges as the figure of decline and ruin:

        In the hot sun, the stench of urine mingles with rotting trash, dog excrement, and green pools of stagnant water…Linda Castaner lives here. She rests her elbows on her front porch, just inches away from ticks that creep toward her bare, tattooed arms. The ticks are no more threatening to her than the muscular young men openly conducting drug deals on the corner. [10]

        An overwhelming sense of death, waste, criminality and apathy sets this scene. It is spectacle, as he describes a place on the brink of hygiene and health, law and order, and pleasure, as the men are “muscular and young,” her arms are “bare, tattooed”: “She says she still abuses heroin. ‘I’m trying to get my self together,’ she says as she uses a garden hose to fill a small plastic pool with water for the neighborhood kids.” bell hooks writes of forms of settlement: “sexuality has always provided gendered metaphors for colonization.” The choices women of color make around their sexuality and their bodies are very much thrown into crisis in representations in popular media. For example, one evocation of Camden and the discourse of illegitimacy:

       Prisons, fostercare homes and homeless shelters teem with fatherless children. An illegitimate baby is 3 times more likely to fail at school, 3 times more likely to commit suicide, and from 20 to 33 times more likely to suffer child abuse than are the children of low-income married parents. His prospects in later life are just as grim: 70 percent of long term prisoners, 60 percent of rapists, and 75 percent of adolescents charged with murder grew up without fathers. No urban reform could have a greater effect, if successful, than attacking the culture of single parenthood. [11]

        The trajectory of racially deviant sexual behavior reaches from mother to child, and through the bodies and sexualities of women and men and children of color who make love and life through the hardships of poverty, displacing the idea that life choices are born of the soul, or connected to the spirit of ancestors.  Here, the home is substituted with institutional forms of incarceration, and life gives way to death. Love, responsibility and presence are dispelled because there is another organization that works against the myths of the healthy heterosexual American family.

        While women of color are evacuated from possessing expressive and creative sexualities, the primary interest in creating a LGBT community in Camden is to gain a population with “Gay buying power.”  Under the heading “Gay Homesteading,” the “Camden, New Jersey Land and Dream” website indicates desire and sexualities through economic stability and consumption. It includes figures on disposable income, home owning, media, and buying trends. Unlike the evocation of sexual choices and statistics characterized under “Illegitimacy,” diversity of life choices and morality are here part of the discourse of achievement and the co-optation of difference. Homesteading speaks to myths of American empire; landscapes are open to the values of capital and whiteness. Here, such myths absolve differences and dissolve any semblance of community formation around forms of gendered, sexual, and racial oppression.

        The “Camden, New Jersey Land and Dream” website also includes a page on Walt Whitman. Yet in calling forth a gay community, it does not speak to the breadth of Walt Whitman’s sexualities. Within this discourse of “Gay Homesteading,” sexuality is a sign that is unable to translate Whitman’s love and desire. Whitman’s sexualities of the body and the natural world remain silent, and instead the economics of wealth and poverty fill and unmask the sign. This re-figuration of sexuality, however, also achieves its fruition in the conquest of lands, the crafting of new homes, and the willful forgetting and destruction of people’s lifeways.

On Mickle Boulevard, racism, poverty, and sexuality historically mingle; it is a hegemonic sight, as histories of race, sexuality, and American empire in the U.S. continually produce cultural and historic space. From the Official website of Camden, NJ:

Walt Whitman needs and wants you to help rebuild and revitalize the city that was so dear to his heart. (Walt was a carpenter you know, and would be right along side you pounding nails if he could.) Become a part of the movement to rebuild Camden. If you are wondering what Walt would want you to do, just look under your boot-soles and ask.

This evocation of revitalization and movement invites and creates individual labor as holding the promise of economic justice and balance for this place. Interestingly, C.L.R. James argued that Whitman developed poetic maneuvers to achieve a similar balance; when confronted with social phenomena that skirted his efforts to see resolutions, Whitman resorted to a pattern for substituting the individual with the problematic: “This was a perpetual maneuver of Whitman. Constitutions, laws, institutions, things – none of these were real. The real things were individuals, you and me; over and over again he does it.” [12] This reading of Whitman’s poetic voice, expresses not only the failure, but also the achievements of American empire. The tangled subject of Whitman’s writings and the politics and processes of American democracy and empire reveal how poetic image and language or the creation of literary history can function to narrate movement and the body, as an invocation of an “Othered” presence, then and now, becomes the threat to, and the mythological sign of, democracy’s heavy advance.

In “Salut Au Monde!” the fragmented body penetrates diverse geography, signaling transgression, presence, and influence on foreign landscapes; this movement is as right as birds or light. National will manifests in “Myself.” A wing, a hand disturbs nature, transgresses form, and moves across the sky and into cities or islands. He describes this reach as a “signal”; it is both born and immortal, etched in the sky, and marks the spaces of death and life -- haunts and homes. Daniel Hoffman states that “Salut Au Monde!” was Whitman’s attempt to write from the position of “En-Masse.” He sees this abandonment of the “single separate person” as the poem’s failure: “Here, and in many other places in Whitman’s work, the will is trying to do the work of the imagination, ideology has replaced inspiration, and the result is a list that is no more poetry than the contents of a telephone book.” [13]

        If not telephone book, then map, as this “Myself” sees, penetrates, and refigures in gesture, inhabited lands through the sign of America:

The function of the first maps was not at all to report a place, but to impose an idea of a place on the new continent… The map was above all a national signature of possession and a public declaration of the right to settlement. This is ultimately why the colonist and explorer did not really see the Indian as much as they saw through him. [14]

The evocations of Mickle Boulevard, then and now, have functioned merely and mostly as the idea of a place. Today the museumed and jailed landscape bears a haunted or “leftover” message, that Camden is ruined and awaiting life, that Whitman wasn’t supposed to be here. Such messages eschew, and yet are woven under with, the practice and breath of everyday lives, that poetry and those screams.

[1] David S. Reynolds. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. 3.

[2] Guenther, Alan. “Fear Taints Camden Optimism.” The Courier-Post Newspaper. 2002.

[3] Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. 27.

[4] Trachtenberg, Alan. “Whitman’s Visionary Politics.” Walt Whitman of Mickle Street. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994. 94.

[5] Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

[6] Anne Trubeck. “Poetic Injustice.” Dec. 3, 2003. <www.preservationonline.org> Leo Blake, curator of the Whitman House, informed me that Charles Dickens never visited Whitman’s home and was in fact dead by the time Whitman purchased this house. Conversation of April 22, 2005.

[7] Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993. 7.

[8] Guenther, Alan. “Fear Taints Camden Optimism.” The Courier-Post Newspaper. 2002.

[9] Betsy Erkkila, “Whitman and American Empire.” Walt Whitman of Mickle Street. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994. 56.

[10] Guenther, Alan. “Fear Taints Camden Optimism.” The Courier-Post Newspaper. 2002.

[11] Macdonald, Heather. “Illegitimacy.”Camden New Jersey Land and Dream” <http://www.camdennewjersey.org/new_page_51.htm>

[12] James, C.L.R. American Civilization. Ed. Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. 207.

[13] Hoffman, Daniel. “‘Hankering, Gross, Mystical, Nude’: Whitman’s Self and the American Tradition.” Walt Whitman of Mickle Street. Ed. Geoffrey M. Sill. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994. 13

[14] Boelhower, William.  Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. 49.

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