Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Camden, New Jersey
Author:
Sill, Geoffrey M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Camden is described by one Whitman biographer as "unlovely," an appropriate term for the late-twentieth-century city that has survived eighty years of decline since it reached its greatest glory in the 1920s. But during Whitman's residence in Camden from 1873 to 1892, the city was still young and growing, vigorous and raw-boned much as Brooklyn, New York, had been in the 1830s during Whitman's youth. This is one reason why Whitman gradually formed a strong attachment to his adopted city.

Camden began as a refuge for a group of Irish Quakers seeking relief from religious persecution. Between 1681 and 1700, they settled on the eastern shore of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia on a tract of land bordered by Pennsauken Creek to the north and Timber Creek to the south. These waterways, along with Newton Creek and Cooper's Creek, which also joined the Delaware at this point, made the tract a natural center for transportation between Philadelphia and the West Jersey towns of Salem, Woodbury, Haddonfield, and Burlington, all of which had large Quaker populations. Several ferry companies provided transit across the river, William Cooper's giving the town its early name of Cooper's Ferry. His descendant Jacob Cooper laid out the streets of the town and sold building lots in 1764, naming it in honor of Charles Pratt, Earl of Camden and friend of the American colonies. The town was incorporated by the New Jersey legislature in 1828, although it was little more than a collection of separate villages lying at some distance from each other. The town's three public gardens were sufficiently wooded that John James Audubon was able to conduct his ornithological studies there in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

Camden tripled in population between 1828 and 1840, from 1,100 to about 3,300, in part because it continued to provide transportation for the emerging industrial economy of the region. A sixty-mile railroad between Camden and Amboy, New Jersey, completed in 1834, provided a direct link between Philadelphia and New York; another in 1852 connected Camden with Atlantic City. Ferry services improved as a result of the railroads, with modern slips at the ends of five city streets. Gas street lamps were first lit in 1852, tracks were laid down for horse-drawn streetcars, and a waterworks was built in 1854. A cholera epidemic in 1866 forced the construction of a sewer system, which in turn created a demand for iron pipes. Among the employees taken on by local foundries in November 1868 was a pipe inspector from Brooklyn named George Washington Whitman.

George Whitman, Walt's younger brother, worked part-time in Camden for several years while also running a construction business and inspecting pipes in Brooklyn. By 1871, however, he was employed full-time in Camden, which enabled him to marry Louisa Orr Haslam and take a house at 322 Stevens Street. He brought his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, and his brother Edward to live with them in August of 1872 and soon began construction of a three-story house on a corner lot at 431 Stevens Street. Before he could finish it, his mother became ill and died in May 1873. Still partially paralyzed by a stroke he had suffered four months earlier in Washington, Walt Whitman hastened to Camden to see his mother, arriving on 20 May, three days before her death. He intended to stay only until his strength returned, but his convalescence was very slow. In September he moved with George's family into the new house at 431 Stevens, and in 1874 he was dismissed from his clerkship in Washington, leaving him a permanent resident of Camden.

Whitman never regained the strength of mind or body that he had enjoyed prior to his stroke, but the last eighteen years of his life were by no means barren of literary activity. In February and March of 1874 he published two poems in Harper's Monthly, "Song of the Redwood-Tree" and "Prayer of Columbus," and in June the Daily Graphic published "Song of the Universal," the three poems together comprising a reaffirmation of his belief in the self and the new world of America. In 1876 he published those and other new poems in the Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass, the only edition to cite Camden as its place of publication. That two-volume edition also included Two Rivulets, a collection of prose and poetry that Whitman hoped would "set the key-stone to my democracy's enduring arch" (Whitman 467). The inclusion of prose signified his determination to become known as a prose writer as well as a poet, and a major portion of his labor in the late 1870s and 1880s went into writing the essays finally published in 1891 as the Complete Prose Works, a longer volume than Leaves of Grass. Many of these essays, such as "Scenes on Ferry and River—Last Winter's Nights," eloquently express the depth of Whitman's attachment to Camden and Philadelphia. 

In 1884 George Whitman moved his family to a farm twelve miles from Camden, but Walt refused to go with them. He had a circle of friends and admirers, including the lawyer Thomas B. Harned and his brother-in-law, Horace Traubel, and the Staffords, with whom Whitman summered in Laurel Springs on a branch of Timber Creek. He had a stream of visitors who knew to look for him in Camden, and he enjoyed the ferryboat rides to Philadelphia immensely. So when an opportunity arose to buy a two-story frame house on Mickle Street for $1,750, he took it, paying the price with his royalties and a loan. He acquired a housekeeper, Mrs. Mary Davis, and spent his days by the front window, looking out and talking with neighbors; or riding in the buggy bought for him through a subscription arranged by Thomas Donaldson; or editing his manuscripts and recalling details of his biography to Horace Traubel. His birthday each year was celebrated with a dinner, the grandest being a banquet in Camden on 31 May 1889, with orations by twelve notable locals and greetings from many more, published as Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman

When Whitman died in 1892, his funeral was attended by over three thousand viewers who filed past the casket in the Mickle Street house and thousands more who lined the avenue as Whitman was carried to his tomb in Harleigh Cemetery. The Camden Post editorialized that Camden would someday be "America's Stratford," Whitman's name giving the city "a glamour second only to that of Avon" (Dorwart and Mackey 94). The city acquired Whitman's house on Mickle Street in 1921, located the original furniture which had been dispersed through the neighborhood, and restored the home as a memorial to the poet. An eight-story hotel in downtown Camden, finished in 1925, was named for Whitman, and a new bridge across the Delaware River was named for him in 1957. Although much of Walt's neighborhood has been lost to urban renewal and George's house at 431 Stevens Street burned down in 1994, Walt's house at 328 Mickle Street and two adjoining properties are now a New Jersey State historic site, offering the original dwelling, a library and visitor's center, and a park with a lifesize statue of Walt with a butterfly on his outstretched fingertip. In these ways, Camden has continued to pay its compliments to its most famous and best-loved resident. 

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Canby, Henry Seidel. Walt Whitman: An American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

Dorwart, Jeffrey M., and Philip English Mackey. Camden County, New Jersey, 1616–1976: A Narrative History. Camden County, N.J.: Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission, 1976.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Loving, Jerome M. Introduction. Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman. Ed. Loving. Durham: Duke UP, 1975. 3–35.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 9 vols. Vols. 1–3. 1906–1914. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953; Vol. 5. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982; Vol. 7. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992; Vols. 8–9. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Oregon House, Calif.: W.L. Bentley, 1996.

____, ed. Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman. Philadelphia: McKay, 1889.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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