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

Home Isn’t Where the House Is: Whitman’s Camden Exile
Evan James Roskos
Rutgers University-Camden 

I swear I will never mention love or death in a house.
(1855 LG)

Poetry gives not so much a nostalgia for youth, which would be vulgar, as a nostalgia for the expressions of youth. (Bachelard 33)

From the homes and apartments in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth to the mansions of The Great Gatsby to the Joad family’s farmhouse in The Grapes of Wrath to Toni Morrison’s “spiteful” 124 in Beloved, houses often provide the catalyst for action or the symbolic backbone of novels in American literature, particularly when characters feel exiled from the structures that they have considered their homes. In poetry, Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost often use the idea of home to explore domestic depression, describing places that have become uncomfortable because of marital trauma or death.

After the Civil War, Walt Whitman’s life was filled with a large amount of domestic trauma and ill health. In an effort to recover from the many shocks he suffered, Whitman moved to Camden, NJ, to live with his brother George after their mother died. Whitman’s initial years in Camden were restorative due to the connection he made between the South Jersey area and the home of his youth in Long Island and Brooklyn. After Whitman purchases the house on Mickle Street in 1884, though, his general outlook sours and his writing dwells on nostalgic images in an effort to combat what Gaston Bachelard calls “groundlessness.” While at first it may seem as if Whitman’s years in Camden are full of brooding, it should be clearly understood that his opinion of the Camden area was separate from his attitude towards his Mickle Street house. For the poet, home and house are two distinct, experienced places that never converge. Whitman never has a strong, positive feeling about the structure of houses even though he does have a clear definition of ‘home.’ As we shall see, Whitman’s experience of Camden is similar to that of exiled writers described by J. Gerald Kennedy in his book on American expatriates in Paris. Determining the essence of Whitman’s exile in Camden--which is a positive and productive period in his life--helps clarify his experience of houses and his concept of ‘home.’

Pinning down Whitman’s idea of ‘home’ is tricky, however, since the bulk of his poetry praises the outdoors, people, ideas, and intimate experiences. Very little poetry discusses a clear idea of home or even the structure of houses. In the few cases that Whitman mentions a house, it is usually in the context of an upper-class life, as in the opening lines of “Song of Myself”: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes” (LG 27). Whitman, who loved the pure smells of the body, sees perfumes as a veiling of human experience. The pure fragrances of the skin, the hair, the sweat are blocked by artificially created scents that would speak to an upper-class desire for what one could call ‘hygienic decorum.’ Later on, the lady who “owns the fine house” watches twenty-eight young men on the shore and is unable to frolic with the working-class bathers due to gender constraints and class differences (LG 32).

On the other hand, in “My Picture-Gallery” Whitman’s mind is a “little house” where he keeps “the tableaus of life” and “the groupings of death” (524). Essentially, Whitman’s memory is his home, not really a house, since it retains experiences instead of veiling them. “There Was a Child Went Forth” offers a simple, domestic scene in a house where a mother is “at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table” (492). Whitman equates the soothing motherly image with the kitchen and the word ‘home,’ adding in the particular smell of a mother, as if her own fragrance supersedes the smells of nourishment provided by that room. Here we have clear distinctions between house and ‘home’--the first a structure associated with class and restraint, the second an experienced place, understood through memories and senses, not measurements and location.

Gaston Bachelard argues that the childhood home is ideal in many ways: “[l]ife begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house” (7). Houses are, by their very nature, structures of protection from the elements, but they also take on an emotional quality that remains even after the house is gone or after one is separated from it. This emotional quality turns the structure into ‘home’--the ideal version of a living space. As Bachelard sees, in a “new house, when memories of other places we have lived in come back to us, we travel to the land of Motionless Childhood, motionless the way all Immemorial things are. […] We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection” (6). This need for protection stems from our encounter with strange surroundings, and Whitman would have needed not only basic physical protection but emotional protection in Camden, since his mother died there.

Not surprisingly, Bachelard suggests that the protective nature of one’s childhood home is motherly, and I believe it is the connection with his mother that is key to understanding Whitman’s Camden exile. Whitman moves to Camden shortly after his mother’s death in 1873, in the grip of a severe depression. Looking for solace, Whitman “slept in the room in which she died and for years lay on her pillow” (SL 171). These actions seem reasonable when we consider the deep love and respect he had for his mother, but they also begin to explain why Whitman did not leave Camden, even after his brother moved his family just outside the city to Burlington County. With his mother removed from the world, Whitman begins to see connections between Camden and the Brooklyn and Long Island of his youth.

Like Brooklyn of the 1840s and 50s, Camden itself was a town on the brink of a population explosion due to an increase in manufacturing jobs. Whitman would have found the menagerie of working class people of the town familiar. Among them were a carter [a hauler of garbage], carpenters and painters, railroad engineers, firemen, conductors, switch tender, and baggagemaster, hostlers, seamen, pilot, trunk maker, and wood dealer, a barkeeper, the owner of a planing mill, and a furrier. (Schapp) Many similar jobs are found in a catalogue from the 1855 “Song of Myself” (43). Camden fulfilled Whitman’s desire to be surrounded by people who color the city and bring it to life.

Apart from his mother’s death, Whitman’s relationship with the Stafford family in nearby Timber Creek solidifies the idea that Whitman saw his time in Camden as a second childhood. As Edwin Miller points out in the Selected Letters of Walt Whitman:

Among the Staffords he found an almost exact duplication of his early life. The father, George, was hard-working but not very prosperous. Family life centered around the mother. […] There were seven living children, five boys and two girls, a situation that paralleled closely […] the Whitman family. Like his own brothers and sisters, the Stafford children did not have time to be educated, and they had to pitch in and help with the chores to keep the family going.  (173)

With a surrogate family just a short distance away in the rural heart of New Jersey, Whitman was able to replicate the life of his youth, wrestling with Harry Stafford like a brother, taking long walks through the woods, floating in creeks, and listening to the birds sing. Whitman credits the Staffords with helping to restore his health after the depressions and illnesses leading up to and following his mother’s death.

Despite these similarities to the many parts of New York Whitman called home, however, he only once refers to Camden as his home without specifying that he means Camden. For example, in an April 22 1887 daybook entry he writes “drove home Camden 5pm” (DB2 421). In the transcription, the word ‘Camden’ floats above a caret after the word ‘home.’ Since the daybooks track very simple activities like visitors and financial matters, and are not written for an outside reader, Whitman must be clarifying the distinction for himself. In a Feb 1877 entry from Specimen Days, Whitman writes “back again at my Camden home” after spending the day in Pennsylvania (97). Without question, the word “home” means something more specific to Whitman than “Camden home,” even if someone reading his letters or notebooks may not actually know the nature of that distinction. Camden is a home in some respects, but it is not his ideal home. The suggestion is that he still considers some other place his true home, although he does not reside there.

In addition, there is an 1872 letter to Anne Gilchrist in which Whitman writes that he is “home with my mother,” without clarifying which home he means (SL 160). At the time of the letter, he is visiting his mother in Brooklyn but lives and works in Washington, D.C. Here, there is a clear indication that home, for Whitman, remains Brooklyn, despite his many removes.

By the 1880s, as Whitman notes in his poem “Thanks in Old Age,” houses are simply “shelter,” as important as, but not nearly as satisfying as, “wine and meat” (629). In another late-life poem, “Of Him I Love Day and Night,” a house has become a crypt, once “full of life” and now “equally full of death” (561). In letters to friends, including one to Mary Whitall Smith in 1885, he sometimes uses the word “premises” when referring to his Mickle Street house (C3 401). If his Camden house is anything, it is a shelter, not a comfortable place that Whitman identifies with on some deep emotional level. In fact, as the years wear on, his attitude towards the Mickle Street house moves from neutral to negative.

Since “we know perfectly that we feel calmer and more confident when […] in the house we were born in, than we do in the houses on streets where we have only lived as transients,” it is not surprising that Whitman’s daybooks are filled with depressed comments about his Mickle Street residence, particularly between the years 1887 and 1890 (Bachelard 43). The most intriguing facet of these entries is his tendency to juxtapose comments about his ill health, the bad weather, and the house. A December 10 entry reads: “in Mickle street in the old shanty – a dark rainy day – somewhat more unwell than usual these days” (D2 443). Here the house mimics how he feels--it is an “old shanty” (a phrase he often used in letters and later entries). Like the house, he is “unwell,” a phrase that is repeated in a January 1888 entry, again following a statement regarding the house: “Saturday Night – Been in the house all the past week – Unwell – bad weather” (446). By March he has changed the order of the details, but not the substance of his complaints: “cold, snowy, biting winter – hard to keep comfortable here in the little front room” (455). After a long illness, Whitman has been in the house and feels that the entire structure has closed in on him. For all intents and purposes, his room is the house at this stage.

Poetry from around this time elaborates on the claustrophobia first discussed in his daybooks. A brief poem called “Life and Death” calmly mentions that “[t]he two old, simple problems[…] close home” (629). Despite the fact that the battle is about to overcome him, Whitman writes very plainly that he will “pass on” just like “each successive age” (629). The feeling of imminent death, though, is pressing in on all sides. The poem itself is brief--four lines in a tight box with none excessively long. Visually, the reader feels the pressure, even though the words are meant to console. “To The Sun-set Breeze” is more positive, describing a “whispering, something again, unseen” that has entered his window. Whitman describes himself as defenseless with a trademark list ending with the palpable phrase “melted-worn with sweat” (644). While this may seem like a poem resenting death, or at least resenting confinement, there is a more positive unseen presence that is a “companion better than talk, book, art” (645). This companion takes Whitman outside of his room to see “the sky, the prairies vast” and to “feel the mighty northern lakes” (645). Whitman does not feel sorry for himself but yearns to get out of his bedroom to traverse the country the way he did for so many years.

In 1888 and 1889, Whitman’s letters to William O’Connor, Alma Calder, Susan Stafford, and William Sloane Kennedy all seal the image of the second story room as a “sick room” and “prison cell” (C3 196, 199, 201, 203). A September 1 letter to Kennedy reads, “I am still imprisoned in my sick room [….] It is all tedious & long drawn out” (C3 203). In a letter to Mary Whitall Smith, Whitman describes a baby’s attack of cholera right after mentioning how he is in his “den in Mickle street the same as ever” (C2 372). The use of the word ‘den’--a small, dark place--is key, and the phrase ‘same as ever’ underscores his resignation.

One way to better see the poetry of these years is through the idea of exile and nostalgia. In his book Imagining Paris, J. Gerald Kennedy explores the nature of nostalgia in the exiled writer as an effort to understand his or her relation to “home.” Living in a place other than one’s home results in “the dilemma of the ungrounded self” (Kennedy 27). So, when a writer senses the loss of connection to home, he or she experiences an anxiety that causes him or her to rely on sometimes unrealistically nostalgic subject matter. Whitman’s later poetry fulfills Kennedy’s belief that “[i]n exile, the longing of the self for place reveals itself as pure nostalgia--as a futile yearning for nostos (home), for a ground of being” (Kennedy 28). Even though Whitman considered his memories a satisfying version of home in “My Picture-Gallery,” the physical and mental imprisonment in the Mickle Street house combine to destroy the effectiveness of his Brooklyn and Long Island memories. Further, since he is unable to get out and see Camden and the surrounding area, he is unable to keep the connections to those places alive. He becomes, in fact, doubly exiled--from Camden and from Brooklyn.

These concepts help explain Whitman’s numerous references to seafaring in his late work. In the poem “Twenty Years,” for instance, Whitman describes a sailor who has returned home after years at sea to a changed place: “all the old land-marks gone--the parents dead” (632). The sailor is looking “to lay in port for good--to settle” but ultimately has no idea what the future holds (632). The “restless keel” suggests that the decision to settle in one place is wrong, that the boy’s ship wants to keep going. The reference to the sailor’s dead parents indicates that the sailor is a version of Whitman, trying to remember and experience a place that was home twenty years ago but is fading from his mind. Whitman is urging this younger version of himself to sail on.

Ultimately, Kennedy finds that the exiled writer strives to “discover the ‘good place’ or the ‘high place’ wherein the ungrounded self might at last escape homelessness and find bliss” (28). Therefore, while Whitman seems to be wallowing in useless nostalgia, the poems of his later life are actually attempts at achieving bliss, at keeping those connections to place vibrant. Whitman confirms Bachelard’s and Kennedy’s views of dreams and nostalgia as attempts for the poet to experience what can no longer be experienced as a result of the passage of time or changes in place. He tries to recreate his home by translating memories into poetry, even writing about the power of those “sweet silent backward tracings” in “Memories” (616). Memories are “wanderings as in dreams--the meditation of old times resumed--their loves, joys, persons, voyages” (616). Although the poems of his final years seem to wallow in death and may lack the details we prefer, they provide us with a more complete understanding of Whitman’s perspective about home, houses, and, most importantly, his aged self.


Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Schopp, Paul. W. “Camden and Mickle Street: A Cultural History.” Mickle Street Review 14 (2001).  http://www.micklestreet.rutgers.edu/archives/Issue%2014/features/schoop.htm.

Whitman, Walt. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. New York: NYU Press, 1978.

––––––––. Leaves of Grass. New York: Library of America, 1992.

––––––––. Selected Letters of Walt Whitman. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1990.

––––––––. Specimen Days and Collect. New York: Dover, 1995.

––––––––.The Correspondence of Walt Whitman. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: NYU Press, 1961-77.  


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