Celebrate Walt Whitman’s 205th Birthday in Camden County

The internationally acclaimed poet spent his final two decades living on Mickle Street in Camden, which has been open to the public for the past century.

The Walt Whitman House in Camden is open to the public.
The Walt Whitman House in Camden is open to the public. Photo: Courtesy of Leo Blake/Walt Whitman Association

Walt Whitman, one of America’s most important literary figures, spent the final 19 years of his life as an esteemed resident of Camden. The internationally acclaimed poet of the body and soul famously and unashamedly declared, “I celebrate myself,” and, “I am an acme of things accomplished.” This month, the people of New Jersey will celebrate him. Whitman’s 205th birthday (he was born on May 31, 1819) is being observed with festivities at multiple Camden County sites associated with his South Jersey residency: Laurel Springs is sponsoring WaltFest on Saturday, May 18, and the Walt Whitman House on Mickle Street in Camden is hosting a birthday poetry event on Wednesday, May 29.

May also marks the 151st anniversary of Whitman’s arrival in Camden, where he revised his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, putting the city on the literary map of the United States. “Making Camden his home meant Whitman could be connected to everything he liked about city living, yet be close to the rural environment he loved—an environment that abounded in late-19th-century southern New Jersey,” Leo Blake, curator of the historic Walt Whitman House, wrote in a 2019 essay. As Whitman put it himself, “Camden was originally an accident, but I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden. It has brought me blessed returns.”

Black and white photo of Walt Whitman at his Camden home

Poet Walt Whitman at his Camden home in 1891. Photo: Public domain

In 1873, the poet, then 53 years old, suffered a paralytic stroke shortly before traveling from Washington, DC, to Camden to visit his ill mother, who died three days later. He stayed, living with his brother George and his sister-in-law on Stevens Street until 1884, when he purchased his first and only home on Mickle Street. Upon his death in 1892, he was buried at Harleigh Cemetery, less than two miles from his residence.

By early 1876, the Good Gray Poet, as Whitman came to be known, had met Harry Stafford, who was 18 years old and worked at a local print shop. The two developed an intimate bond; it seems to have been the last serious romantic liaison of the poet’s life. In a letter dating from 1882, Whitman assured Stafford, “I think I understand you better than anyone—(& like you more too).” In a recent email, Whitman biographer Jerome Loving wrote that he suspects their friendship had “a little hanky panky on the side.” Intriguingly, Whitman presented a ring to Harry, who wrote to the poet, “When you put it on there, was but one thing to part it from me, and that was death.”

Soon after they met, Stafford introduced Whitman to his family in Laurel Springs (then called Kirkwood). Over various seasons, the poet relished his numerous visits to the Stafford farmhouse on East Maple Avenue, which was only about 12 miles from Camden. The unpretentious, six-room home played critical roles in Whitman’s life.

The Song of Myself author enjoyed the family’s hospitality, including meals prepared by Susan Stafford, Harry’s mother, maintaining, “There is not a nobler woman in Jersey.” The poet especially liked her curry-glazed chicken breast. He slept in one of two upstairs bedrooms or the barn, where he may have also done some writing.

While in Laurel Springs, Whitman was drawn to nearby Timber Creek. Like Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Whitman kept copious notes of his communion with nature, writing, “Nothing can exceed the quiet splendor and freshness around me.” Looking like a prophet from the Old Testament, but cavorting like a flower child of the 1960s, Whitman relished his “Adamic air-bath,” romping naked amid the trees, birds and wildflowers; he even covered his body with mud from the marlpit. In the autobiographical Specimen Days, he reminisced, “Never before did I get so close to Nature.”

For the ailing, middle-aged author, it was a regenerative experience. The poet, in a letter dated February 28, 1881, confided to Stafford: “If it hadn’t been for you & our friendship & the kindness of your mother…I believe I should not be a living man to-day.” As an indication of gratitude, Whitman bequeathed his silver watch to Harry Stafford and a small sum of money to Susan Stafford.

In 1884, Whitman bought his “little old house” for $1,750 (approximately $54,770 today) at 328 Mickle Street, in a neighborhood of Camden with a mix of social classes, not far from the ferry to Philadelphia. Although he referred to it as “the shanty of my own,” the two-story, wood-frame residence comprised approximately 1,700 square feet, with two parlors, a dining room, a kitchen and three bedrooms. Whitman added an upstairs bathroom with a copper tub. The Greek Revival townhouse has been open to the public since 1923.

“Visitors have a window into the past and a look into the life of one of America’s truly great poets…living in 19th-century America—a time of change, challenges and triumphs for a young nation growing towards maturity,” Blake, curator of the the carefully restored property, tells New Jersey Monthly.

On a recent tour, the home gave the impression Whitman might still have been in residence. The rooms had a homey feel, with most furnishings having originally been brought in by Mary Davis, Whitman’s housekeeper. Her needlepoint still hung in the kitchen. At this address, the poet entertained admirers like Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde.

On the second floor was Whitman’s bedroom, where he spent considerable time by the window after his second paralytic stroke in 1888. The approximately 360-square-foot space served as a commodious office/bedroom setting. Today, the floor is still strewn with papers. The poet was often photographed in his rocking chair, which is still there, along with its animal-skin throw, his boots, and the cage for his feathered pet, named Canary Bird.

In 1890, just a few years after Harleigh Cemetery was founded, Whitman personally selected and was gifted a prominent hillside burial site, measuring 20 by 30 feet, just west of the entrance gate. It was clever marketing to capitalize on his celebrity status to promote the new garden cemetery. (Some years ago, Whitman’s free verse and voice, which had been recorded by Thomas Edison, was posthumously used to sell Levi’s 501 jeans!)

At the age of 72, Whitman died in bed at his Mickle Street home. His body was carried down to the back parlor on the main floor, where an autopsy was performed. “The end came peacefully,” announced the original death notice posted on the front door; it was written by Dr. Alex McAlister and remains on view in the house.

On March 30, 1892, there was an open-casket viewing at the poet’s residence before the coffin was driven by carriage for the short ride to Harleigh Cemetery, where a graveside funeral service was held. Upwards of 5,000 people were reported to have attended. Several dignitaries served as pallbearers, including Thomas Eakins, the noted Philadelphia-based painter.

Inspired by a William Blake illustration, Whitman designed his own rough-hewn granite mausoleum. Its massive stone door is still left ajar so visitors can peer through the original iron gate and see a marble-walled chamber, where the poet is placed between his mother and father. The 15-foot-tall masonry tomb, with his name prominently on its pediment, is a formidable shrine to a luminary who had proclaimed, “My foothold is…mortis’d in granite. “

To honor the birth of Whitman, Laurel Springs hosts WaltFest on May 18 from 11 am to 3 pm at the historic Stafford farmhouse. Walt Whitman (played by David Scott Taylor) will receive admirers. A trolley will shuttle visitors to Crystal Springs Park, a spot along Timber Creek that Whitman enjoyed. There is now a half-mile boardwalk to stroll amidst the natural setting. The celebration at the park is also set to feature the 12th New Jersey Infantry Regiment Civil War Reenactors.

At the poet’s historic residence in Camden, the 205th Walt Whitman Birthday Celebration is being held on May 29 at 5 pm, just two days before his actual birthday. Winners of the Walt Whitman Association’s High School Poetry Contest are set to read, and professor Edward Whitley of Lehigh University is the special guest speaker.

The Pope of Mickle Street continues to inspire Whitmaniacs.

As Blake describes it, “Whitman is many things to many people.” And, back in 1889, the New York Tribune proclaimed, “If Camden has a patron saint, it certainly is the ‘good, gray poet.’”

Fred B. Adelson, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Art History, Department of Art, at Rowan University.

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