So Tyler & I decided to take a trip to Walt Whitman’s house in Camden on Friday. For years I’ve wanted to make the pilgrimage. “Do you know why the bridge is named for him?” I’ve asked students, and they usually do not, and I offer, “Because Walt spent the last years of his life here in New Jersey. He was ours, at the end.”
As Walt himself said, “Camden was originally an accident…” But perhaps a happy accident for us. (But I remember my friend Fran saying, “When the bridge was named, there was controversy. Because Whitman was gay. And some people didn’t like that.” So we have a “gay bridge” to the City of Brotherly Love; how beautiful.)
So it was, and so we went: just close enough to the bridge but not over it. We were driving towards the waterfront when Tyler spotted the address. “Over there!” A well-executed U-turn put us just outside, on the side of the street where once there were trees, where there is now construction on the road and partial excavation of the Button house next door. This street, once Mickle now renamed MLK Boulevard.
We rang the bell at one of the row homes. A man above poked his head out from a window upstairs and said he’d be right down. We watched men drinking on another stoop next door. (It was eleven o’ clock in the morning: so noted.) Our guide undid the locks to lead us into a room; popped in an old VHS tape about Camden & Whitman and Whitman in Camden. He returned when the credits started to roll and told us that Whitman’s home was actually the one next door. So we went back outside into the sun & sounds of men working –– to be admitted to Walt’s “shanty,” as Whit, himself, called it.
No pictures were allowed inside the residence where the poet struggled with his many ailments & final verse alterations.
Here’s the front room where he would sit and talk to passing strangers from the street.
Upstairs, the bedroom. We look at a picture of the room during the time of the great, grizzly bard: manuscripts & books scattered everywhere. My inner neat-freak winces a moment. I suppose I could not have lived with you, Walt, not as Mary the housekeeper and her son Warren had; Warren, who slept in the anteroom, to attend to him. Warren, whom Walt sent to massage school so that his fleshy flesh could be properly attended to. There, the deathbed; with a basin pressing out from underneath for when Walt required a sponge bath. (“Warren! Bath time! Warren!” –– one imagines the call.) A cloche bell jar houses a stuffed bird & some foliage. So Victorian. I wonder if Walt himself picked that out or some unknown, interior decorator.
We go back downstairs to the rear parlor. Here, we are told, is where the autopsy on the poet was performed; where they noted his many maladies (bent rib; collapsed lung) and where the poet’s brain was removed, later lost.
Our tour ends in the garden.
After we part from our guide, we set out for the tomb in Harleigh Cemetery. Walt took the money that was donated by fans & his “disciples,” funds intended for a new house but that paid for this tomb instead. There are names carved into the trees all around. There are tokens left everywhere.
Here lies the rock star.
We drove through the rest of Camden on our way to Collingswood, where we would have boxed lunches. “We could rent artists’ space here,” Tyler suggested, and as I examined the boarded-up edifices & hungry-faced residents, thought, “If good enough for the prophet, then.”
Two notes: yes, the switch to present-tense in the middle was intentional. No, I have not posted in two weeks; I’ve been so busy with summer classes & some “offline” projects. Forgive me, reader. I will try to be more attendant.
I wish I could have gone!!
Great post, Rich! I just moved to Collingswood and was discussing Harleigh with some friends at pizza and poetry in Camden last night. I haven’t been to Walt’s tomb since I was twelve. Time for another visit.
Thanks for stopping by the blog to say “hi.”