‘Blessed Returns’

Walt Whitman came to Camden by accident. On the 120th anniversary of his death, he’s still a presence.

Whitman, in 1871.
The Granger Collection, NYC.

It has been 120 years since the death in Camden of Walt Whitman on March 26, 1892, but the man dubbed the Good Gray Poet remains a tangible presence in South Jersey, from the Walt Whitman Bridge that connects Gloucester City and Philadelphia to the service area on the New Jersey Turnpike in Cherry Hill that bears his name.

In Camden, Whitman’s legacy has been an enduring one. His two-story frame house on Mickle Boulevard and his mausoleum at Harleigh Cemetery still attract visitors from around the world. A statue of the poet at Rutgers University-Camden is a campus landmark; “In a dream, I saw a city invincible,” a line from a Whitman poem in his immortal collection, Leaves of Grass, is inscribed on the façade of Camden’s City Hall.

“Whitman has elevated Camden,” says Father Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, who recalls how a passing mention of Camden on a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, led to a discussion of Whitman.

“He honored Camden by choosing to live here and die here. He created a new song for the soul of America,” adds Doyle, himself a writer and poet. Father Doyle also praises Whitman for his celebration of working men and women.

A native of Long Island, Whitman came to Camden in May 1873 to visit his ailing mother. He later returned to live in Camden, initially with his brother, George. Using royalties from Leaves of Grass, he purchased the Mickle Street (now Mickle Boulevard) property, the only home he ever owned, for $1,750 in 1884.

“Camden was originally an accident,” Whitman once observed, “but I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden. It has brought me blessed returns.”

Whitman’s time in the city was an important period in his life, says Leo D. Blake, curator of the Walt Whitman House.

“It can be argued that Whitman’s Camden years were significant, not only for the volume of his writing, but that he came into his own as a poet of international reputation,” Blake says, noting that Whitman produced three updated editions of Leaves of Grass and two other books during his time in Camden. “He became widely known afterward as the Great Poet of Democracy.”

Whitman found inspiration in South Jersey. He enjoyed visiting the Shore, especially in the winter, and wrote an 1879 essay on Atlantic City, and a poem, “Patrolling Barnegat,” as a result of these trips.

As Whitman’s stature grew, he cultivated friendships with Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins and writers Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker. Both Wilde, who said his mother read Leaves of Grass to him as a child, and Stoker, best known as the author of Dracula, traveled to Camden to visit Whitman.

In an 1882 letter to the poet, Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, wrote: “Before I leave America, I must see you again—there is no one in this wide great world of America, whom I love and honour so much.”

Blake acknowledges that Whitman likely influenced Stoker as a writer. Barbara Belford, author of the 1996 biography, Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula, wrote that “Whitman’s influence on Dracula was profound,” noting that early illustrations of Dracula bore a resemblance to the poet.

Conscious of his mortality, Whitman selected his burial site at Harleigh Cemetery on Christmas Eve 1889, according to Blake. Construction of the mausoleum, which resembles a small house and is set in a hill, took eight months and cost more than $3,000. Whitman visited the cemetery to oversee work on the mausoleum, which would house his parents and other family members.

A marker with an excerpt from “Song of Myself” serves as Whitman’s parting words: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

Tom Wilk is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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