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visiting walt whitman in camden

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Visiting Walt Whitman In Camden

by George Wallace

(March 26, 2002 - Philadelphia, Pa) It has been a few years since author, teacher and Long Island literary historian Vince Clemente visited Walt Whitman sites in Camden, New Jersey - and his memory of the town is not a particularly fond one.

"Especially his brother George's house on Stevens Street," says Clemente. "That burned down in 1995 - it was rubble, I saw it. It was a shame what happened to Camden - is it any better these days?"

Not exactly.

These days, significant portions of Camden New Jersey - a bridgespan away from what is by contrast the vibrant downtown of Philadelphia, across the wide expanse of the Delaware River - are in tatters.

Yet the Whitman connection continues to make the New Jersey town a logical destination point for those who are serious about pursuing their appreciation of the life and times of America's Good Gray Poet.

" Whitman lived there twenty years, wrote serious works there," notes Clemente, who retired from a teaching position at SUNY Stony Brook a few years back to devote himself to his well known pursuit of literary biography. "He wrote Specimen Days there, Passage to India, other works." Philadelphia was important in his life too, with strong associations to such individuals as painter Thomas Eakins and Eakins' student Thomas Anshutz; and to Mrs. Gilchrist, the British wife of a painter who lived there and who had a personal fascination with the aging American icon. "He gave several important lectures on Lincoln in Philadelphia, and there was a group in Philadelphia that held significant fundraisers for the author."

There was no bridge to Philadelphia then, Whitman would take the ferry. "As a matter of fact John Hall Wheelock - probably the last major American poet to see Whitman - said when he was a little boy, he was crossing the Delaware when he saw a man in a ferry opposite going in the other direction," said Clemente . "His father said, there goes Walt Whitman."

As a Whitman enthusiast myself - and in deference to the fact that it was Spring Break and my son has been studying the Constitutional Convention held by the America's Founding Fathers in Philadelphia's Independence Hall - I paid a visit to some of Whitman's Camden old haunts along the Delaware last week to see if I too could say to my son, "There Goes Walt Whitman."

In fact, and as it is for most tourists, the bulk of the visit to Philadelphia consisted of two things - visiting the steps to the art museum which Sylvester Stallone ran up in Rocky; and waiting on line to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall - touchstones of the American experience, and well worth the wait for Fifth Graders, Constitutional Scholars, and parents like me who rediscover the world and their own national culture through their children's homework.

Philadelphia is a city with wide boulevards and a Grand Concept - a city design only possible from the brains of individuals sitting around inventing modern constitutional government under the influence of late 18th century French political culture. Among the attractions, it has a small home Edgar Allen Poe lived in, Betsy Ross' home, and an unusually large number of attractive public sculptures (Dubuffet, Barnett Newman) and roof high murals (George Fox, William Penn, Harriet Tubman, great WPA workers rebuilding America, and a huge Ben Franklin, with Absolut bottles for spectacles).

In fact Philly contains many charms, but for those with an eye towards Whitmanalia, the real action is across the huge and brightly lit Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River, in Camden New Jersey.

Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, and Trenton - the capital of New Jersey, and a town you have to pass through if you take Amtrak there - has emblazoned in the center of town a sign that reads "Trenton Makes, America Takes;" when it comes to Camden, it wouldn't be too surprising to find a sign in town that termed it the city that America forgot. The center of today's Camden town, without exaggeration, makes the old bombed out sections of South Bronx look good.

Yet in the midst of the crumbling walls and broken windows which characterizes much of Camden in the year 2002 is the last home of Walt Whitman.

Situated on Mickle Boulevard - a wide riverside route that leads through flat open land to the Battleship New Jersey and past anonymous and decaying industrial sites - are to be found a lonely group of row houses. One of them has a piece of paper with a few typed words on it, indicating that it is Walt Whitman's house, stuck haphazardly in a windowpane.

"When I visited Camden, I went upstairs to Walt's bedroom," said Clemente. "I saw a penal colony from his window. Whitman lived the last eight years of his life in that house."

Whitman's Mickle Street Protector

It was in this house that a wheelchair-bound Whitman lived when he enlisted the aid of tough 15-year old Harry Willetts, one of the neighborhood boys, to protect him from local bullies who threw rocks at him. Willetts, who later moved to Huntington and became a well-known community figure as "King of the Winter Carnival," remembered in later years that after he accepted Walt's offer of two cents a day to escort him down Mickle Street to the local schoolyard to watch the kids play, the rest of the boys left the old graybearded poet alone.

The account is related in a 1938 interview with Willets in The Long-Islander newspaper, a weekly publication in Walt's hometown of Huntington Long Island, which he founded and which continues to publish to this day. And if Willets is to be believed, his account reveals an old, paralyzed man who was tormented by youngsters in his Camden, NJ neighborhood.

Now Harry Willets was a flamboyant character. In his adulthood he moved to Huntington and became known as the Winter Carnival King, officiating at the annual bobsled races down the village Main Street with style and energy - until one year he got in hot water because he was the owner of a big racing vehicle of his own and wanted to enter the races himself.

For what it's worth, Willets' account of Whitman's tribulations on Mickle Street in Camden portrays the 19th century literary giant as an old, graybearded man in a wheelchair.

"I was just a big skinny kid at the time," says Willets, who says he played with the son of Walt's housekeeper. "We were a wild lot of kids, always on the lookout to bedevil someone or raise mischief," The more helpless the victim, the more he was likely to be bedeviled, "and you know how quick kids are to single out a character. Well, Walt Whitman just fitted that mold."

How so? According to King Harry, Whitman had a long gray beard stained with tobacco juice; he was lame and couldn't chase his tormentors; "and he would sit around lazylike, and his big sombrero hat set him off," said Willets. "In the language of the street, he was a perfect target." In fact the kids called Whitman "Old Tobacco Juice," Willets explained, and threw stones and ripe old fruit at him.

But according to Willets, Walt Whitman was up to the challenge despite his apparent infirmity - befriending the young boy. And before long he had the fifteen-year old Willets acting as his protector. "He told me if I would wheel him to the schoolyard every recess he would give me two cents a day," said Harry. "I took the job, and the gang never pestered Whitman after that. Instead, they waited until I had wheeled him back home and they assembled at the corner candy store to take me inside and direct the spending of the daily reward."

A nice understanding of the Tao for a Nineteenth Century American with a widebrimmed hat. But aside from the anecdotal value of the tale as a sample of Whitman's character, Willets' story reveals the modest condition under which Walt was forced to live during his later years in Camden. "Walt would sit in his wheelchair and watch the kids play, just gazing," he recalled. "Or write random notes on his scratchpad. After writing he would pull an apple out of his coat pocket and pull out a knife from his pants pocket." Willets recalled that the knife was an unusual one - handmade, with a large blade and a black wooden casing within which was a four-pronged detachable steel fork. "There is no question but what Walt had the knife made to order for the special purpose of preparing and eating wild fruit with it," suggested the editor of the Long-Islander.

Not that Walt was expressly concerned over money. As he told Horace Traubel - Whitman's confidante, and author of With Whitman in Camden - America was too obsessed with monetary success. "America (is) prone to count success in dollars," writes Traubel, transcribing the great poet's point of view on the matter. "I do not mean to say that other things do not go with these - objects, refinements, superb things certifying to evolution...yet a money civilization can never last. We must find surer foundations. Not to disdain goods, yet not to be ruled by them - not to dawdle forever in parlors, with luxury, show."

But to continue Willets' tale. According to Harry's 1938 account, Walt "always pared the apple and quartered it, took the unique fork from the knife and jabbing it into a quarter of the apple he would munch away." Unfortunately, Whitman had a little bit of trouble manipulating the unusual instrument. "A hook-like end of the knife was always tearing holes in his pocket, and the knife would be lodged somewhere around Walt's knee."

In the end, said Willets, Whitman became disgusted with the knife, and gave it to the fifteen-year old boy.


Walt Whitman's Grave

That knife is in the possession of the Huntington Historical Society these days. As for the schoolyard, like Walt's ruse, it is a memory. But in the wide, flattened expanse which now constitutes the former Mickle Street neighborhood Whitman lived in, the brickrow house he inhabited - with its easy front step to sit on, and framed by a newly blossoming streetside tree studded with clusters of white flowers - retains a charm which suggests a more gentle and life-filled time.

So after sitting on the stoop for a few minutes, and intent on finding a vital sense of Walt Whitman in Camden, my son and I picked a sprig of flowers from a low-hanging branch of the tree, and brought it across town to Harleigh Cemetery, where Whitman is entombed.

Harleigh Cemetery - like the larger cemetery in Camden we found first, by mistake - is a well maintained refuge from the decay of the central city. And while the directional signs to Whitman's grave are not so well laid out as the signs to more recently deceased, idiosyncratic Camden Haiku poet Nick Virgilio - not a particularly well-known figure nationally, but the object of recent attention by the local university - Whitman's tomb stands apart from the crowd of headstones and mausolea as an exceptional pilgrimage place for those who wish to think on the Good Gray Poets' legacy.

The tomb is situated in the side of a hillock on its own, modestly marked, but impressive for its size and dignity. Inside are the remains not only of Walt, but of his parents and siblings. An iron gate protects the inside, but to the delight of my son, the stone doorway had been left ajar so that Whitman "can wander out at night" as the legend has it Walt requested.

We were not the first ones there on this particular day. Previous visitors had left a potted hyacinth at the foot of the gate for the Good Gray Poet. We left our sprig of white treeblossoms there, stuck in a corner of the chained iron gate, and said a prayer for the poor people of Camden.

And we headed back for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, and Philadelphia.

But before leaving we took a second look, in a landscaped area a little to the side, at a pedestal with some of the poet's most famous words engraved on it. They are from the 52nd and final section of his great poem "Song of Myself." "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/ If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles."

Not engraved there, but perhaps a more apt rejoinder in today's Camden, are the six lines of Walt's which follow, and which conclude this master poem of his:

"You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you."

It would seem that, despite being a town where children threw rocks at him - and despite being the scene of some of America's worst urban blight - Camden, New Jersey remains one place to stop if you want to "fetch" Walt Whitman. He may have wanted it that way.