THE POET'S HOME: According to the WPA Guide to New Jersey, the house Walt Whitman spent the last six years of his life in "became the Mecca of literary friends and admirers from all over the world." The entry, which was probably written by William Carlos Williams, goes on to say that he ignored "the best people" and preferred to "roam the streets chatting with any and all who caught his fancy. He specially liked to talk with children and workingmen, whom he considered the clearest voices in 'the human comedy.'" The house, which underwent a year-long, $850,000 restoration in 1999, is located at 328 Mickle Boulevard (also know as Martin Luther King Boulevard), between 3rd and 4th Streets, two blocks east of the Camden Waterfront. For more information, call (856) 964-5383. Curator Leo Blake advises calling before making a visit.
What follows is the result of a chain reaction triggered by Don Imus’s offhand racist, sexist crack about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which led me to Camden and Walt Whitman by way of Governor Jon Corzine’s near-fatal accident on the Garden State Parkway. Powered by Google, my progress toward a subject wound through an online bazaar of archives from mass murder at Virginia Tech to mass murder in Camden (Howard Unruh’s rampage in 1949 that left 13 dead); from the wearing of seat belts to the first drive-in movie theatre in the world (which opened in Camden in 1933); from Drumthwacket in Princeton (where the governor was on his way at 90-plus m.p.h. for Imus’s Apology) to the Good Gray Poet’s humble residence on Mickle Street, which became Mickle Boulevard, also known, since the 1990s, as Martin Luther King Boulevard. Enroute to Whitman’s house, I made side-trips to the Walt Whitman Theatre, which showed the first sound films in the Camden area, and to the Walt Whitman Hotel, where President Nixon and Governor Cahill engaged in a 1970 photo op (both establishments were demolished in the 1980s).
This week it’s a relief to hear that Mr. Corzine is more or less back on his feet after spending around 19 days recovering in the city where Walt Whitman spent the last 19 years of his life. Like the governor, the poet came to Camden to recover, not from an accident but from a stroke that necessitated his moving in with his brother in 1873. As everyone now knows, Mr. Corzine landed in Camden because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt, an oversight he’s going to be deluged with questions about from the same insatiable media that gorged on Imus and Virginia Tech. Although I’m a firm believer in seat belts and have no doubt the governor will be penitently urging New Jerseyans to Buckle Up, I keep thinking that, deep down, he and Whitman share some essential human resistance to the idea of enforced restraint. Even in his advanced years, it’s unlikely that Whitman would have tolerated confining any “organ or attribute” of himself to a seat belt or the 19th-century equivalent. This is the same man, after all, who once boasted to Henry David Thoreau of riding side by side with the drivers on Broadway omnibuses while “gesticulating and declaiming Homer at the top of his voice.”
On the way to Whitman’s house after my whirlwind Google tour of issues like free speech, racism, sexism, highway safety, and government-mandated inequality, not to mention the perennial bullying of the NRA (“I’d have killed a thousand if I’d had bullets enough,” Howard Unruh claimed), I happened on a six-line poem from 1888 in which Whitman celebrates “equal daughters, equal sons … young or old” who are “all alike … Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich.” His closing image is of a “grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,/Chair’d in the adamant of Time.” He called the poem “America.”
Thanks in great part to the day-to-day picture of the poet provided by Horace Traubel’s Walt Whitman in Camden, it’s hard to imagine Whitman himself “chaired in the adamant of Time” even when he was at the lap robe and slippers stage. If it seems a stretch to imagine him being dismissive of such things as seat belts, consider the living poet “chaired” in front of his Camden home in a piece of furniture he had determined must be “a plain chair — no cushions — not a cushioned chair: wicker bottom . Most of the users of these chairs are old plugs like me — broad at the beam — who won’t be squeezed down at their time of life.” The classified ad he dictated read: “Wanted: A strong first-rate out-door chair for an old 200 lb. invalid — to be pushed or pulled along the sidewalks and on the ferry boats — roomy chair, back high — no cushions or stuffing.”
And no neckties — “What tie? I have never come to a tie yet!” As for shirts, pity the poor clothing salesman who once dared tell him “No one wears such now, sir,” to which the poet roared “Never mind! — I wear them!” When the sales clerk persisted, the poet cursed him out, and, as Whitman told Traubel, the man fled “to the other side of the counter fearing me for some barbarian who needs to be given lee-way!”
And what about the above-mentioned lap robe and slippers? Were you picturing maybe something shabby and grim? When Traubel kidded him about the “odd contrast” the bright yellow slippers made with the “decided blue” of the robe, Whitman laughingly told him: “You must not laugh at my shoes — I am tremenjously proud of them!”
Recalling a Visit
He was listed in the Camden Directory of 1877 as “Whitman, Walt, Poet.” In 1884, after the success of the 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass, he was able to purchase his own home, a two-story frame house on Mickle Street for $1,750. If you ever pay a visit to this National Historic Landmark, you’ll find it no less personable and companionable than the writings of the man who lived there.
Although it’s been years since my last visit, I spoke recently with the curator, Leo Blake. I’m not sure who my guide at the time was, but from what Mr. Blake told me, it may have been someone subbing for Eleanor Ray, the former curator, who has since died. Or maybe the woman’s enthusiasm was such that my imagination got the best of me and transformed her into a double for Diana Ross, with a flower in her hair and wrists bedecked with bangles and bracelets. Whoever she was, she had developed a lively relationship with the man whose home she was showing me, and I have no doubt that Whitman would have liked her as much as she seemed to like him. She talked about the man as if she’d grown up playing at his feet or sitting on his lap in his rocking chair, which she couldn’t help laughing at as she pointed out the photo of himself he’d had framed and attached to the back. “Look at him,” her laughter said. “He’s flirting with us!” And so he was, “out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and endlessly making eyes at the world.
Upstairs, as she showed me the bed he died in, she was still smiling, as if the idea of death were no less amusing than the idea of having a picture of yourself in your own rocking chair. When I asked about the battered black object poking out from beneath Whitman’s death bed, she pulled it fully into view. “This is his bath tub,” she said. “Well, not exactly the actual tub, but the tub that held the tub he took his baths in. You know, to catch the overflow.” We shared a smile at the idea of the old poet’s overflow.
The Arts Fortress
The last time I was in Camden was on a cold, rainy night half a year before the invasion of Iraq. I’d come at the invitation of the New Jersey Arts Council to give a reading at the Walt Whitman Arts Center, which is located in the monumental edifice that was once the public library. With its facade of Ionic columns and spacious stone stairway, the building reminded me of the Trenton War Memorial. Once I got to the top of the stairs, I found that the grim, massive iron doors were locked, further encouraging the impression that this arts sanctuary named for a free spirit who sounded his “barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world” and shouted “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” was locked inside a fortress. The only way to gain admittance involved the familiar urban routine of pushing a buzzer and then waiting for someone to come let you in. Looking on the bright side, you could say the situation gave the “arts” a kind of embattled glamour. The audience for the reading consisted solely of the literary events director, and, eventually, the other reader, who had been delayed by the rainy weather. Then, just before we began, the fortress buzzer rang and someone went down to let in two people who had come to recite their own poetry in an open mike session after the scheduled readings. The late arrivals were both female, one Hispanic and the other a heavy-set, attractive African American girl who knew her poems by heart and virtually sang them. She told us she sometimes performed them at her church. Whitman would have smiled to hear her.
Last April I was at an arts gathering at Drumthwacket as the governor introduced three young student poets, all girls, and then stood aside while each read from her work. Once again Whitman would have been smiling. As for Mr. Corzine, he seemed very much at home that evening, and if anything good can be said to have come out of the chain of events that landed him in Whitman’s Camden, it’s the fact that he will be in residence at the governor’s mansion for the foreseeable future. Perhaps in time he may even have occasion to welcome some more young poets or to read in the works of the one who loved “the sound of the human voice”:
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
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