An August 2005 trip
to Philadelphia by kjlouden
Quote: The Declaration of Independence isn’t the only work of world
renown written in Philly. "The Raven" and other works by Poe were composed at
his residence at 7th and Spring Garden, and Whitman wrote his "Deathbed Edition" of
Leaves of Grass two blocks from Camden Waterfront.
From 1838-1844, Poe was the most exciting literary figure in Philadelphia. Before he came here, he established somewhat a reputation as critic, theorist, and trendsetter during his editorship of Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond. That fame blossomed in Philadelphia, where he edited Graham’s literary magazine. Most school children learn something of his life in Richmond: his estrangement from foster father Allan, his grueling poverty, and his struggle for only sporadic success. Most folks know about his death in Baltimore. I’m not sure why his happier, more successful years in Philadelphia aren’t remembered as well--perhaps misery has more mass appeal.
His rental house, 7th and Spring Garden Streets, is situated on what was a quiet lane at the northern edge (then) of the city.
His mother-in-law (and aunt), Maria Clemm, and wife (and cousin), Virginia, provided him with the only stability he ever enjoyed, and he loved them both. I find the home surprisingly large and pleasant, especially after seeing the scanty Richmond residence, aone-room house right on the sidewalk of a busy street. I feel some relief at finding this evidence that Poe wasn’t always miserable and destitute, but Virginia was diagnosed with tuberculosis before they moved here. The bedroom where Maria cared for her is here. Virginia died after they moved to New York.
Unlike Poe’s site, Whitman House contains the poet’s furniture and belongings.
Even his goulashes are here--when they aren’t traveling to NYC for display in a museum. Ranger Dick Dyer tells us a story about the French police "and the French army" (perhaps an exaggeration), who guarded the unloading of Whitman’s cane and other belongings from an airplane at CDG. Passengers weren’t allowed to disembark until the precious relics were safely unloaded for transport to an exhibit. Whitman successfullypromoted himself and everything he owned.
Looking toward Philadelphia from the Camden Waterfront, I think I hear Whitman’s "varied carols": the ferry’s horn, a crane moving just west of Elfreth’s Alley,the English actors dueling on the stage in Betsy Ross’ courtyard. The Signerstatue comes to mind, and I wonder where I can find The Singer, who immortalized the building of this country by tradesmen and the common sounds of our daily lives. Whitman designed the post-romantic poetry of America as surely as the founding fathers set its government in motion.
"I loved well the stately and rapid river;The men and women I saw were all near to me;Others the same—others who look back on me, because I look’d forward tothem;"
Walt’s concept of ferries obliterating barriers of time and space seems valid. I chat with a lady from Australia. When she doesn’t disembark at Camden dock, I ask why: "I like riding ferries everywhere I go." Perhaps she feels the presence of past souls, too! Maybe even Whitman.
We take SEPTA bus no. 47 at 7th and Market and ride north on 7th to Spring Garden Streetand Poe’s site on the left. The same bus takes us back to 7th and Market, and fromanywhere on Market, most east-west buses go to Penn’s Landing. The ferry dock is downthe steps and right.
We buy Philadelphia Entertainment Book and save the purchase price with just one meal. As one extra, we get 50% off a ferry ride with the purchase of another. Usually, Riverlink is round-trip.
We learn about his housekeeper and friend, Mrs. Mary Davis, widow of a sea captain
who lived with The Poet of Democracy in Camden in the house he was able to buy with
proceeds from the sale of the 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass.
The book of poetry was first published in 1855, but Walt continued to add to it and revise
it until his death in 1892. He was 72 when he died, at a time when most men lived to be
about 44. If lifespan is any indication of intelligence, then Big Walt was pretty smart!
He wasn’t very rich, though. His estate amounted to $14,000, while his brother, a
plumber, was worth more.
Dyer explains that Whitman relived his Brooklyn youth in Camden, and even when his
brother moved on, Walt insisted on staying in the house on Mickle Boulevard. Among
his guests was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who must have been envious of Whitman’s
down-to-earth language as he was of Henry David Thoreau’s. Other visitors included
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Bram Stoker, and artist Thomas Eakins. Whitman and
Eakins especially admired each other’s work; both flouted the conventions of their time
to create masterpieces that were distinctly American. Eakins photographed and painted
Whitman. Even Oscar Wilde crossed the ocean to meet here with the poet he considered
The tour, we are told, discusses some of Whitman’s idiosyncrasies, including his
penchant for bathing daily, which made him an eccentric in his day. He could afford a
bathtub, a luxury at the time. Besides his cane, goulashes, furniture, and clothing, the
house contains many images of him, including the oldest known one, an 1848
daguerreotype, which has been displayed at the Smithsonian. All wallpapers have been
authentically reproduced, and I understand that the inside is attractive.
As we walk toward the restored residence, we pass a man sleeping on his stoop. Garbage
covers the vacant yard between his house and the Whitman row.
The garbage may be cleared by September, because a celebration is planned here for the
150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass.
Since we can’t go inside, we content ourselves with viewing the carriage stone, a marker
that kept the house from destruction. A woman who wanted to save it knocked on the
door and asked the tenant if this was where Walt Whitman had lived. He said, "No!"
She started to leave and then saw the stone with initials.
Only 7,000 visitors are expected this year. What a travesty! It will be interesting to
watch the site grow. It must, because Whitman is a giant.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 18, 2005
Walt Whitman House
328 Mickle Boulevard
Camden, New Jersey 08103
Attraction | "The Amish and Reading Terminal Market"
Without the presence of mind to snap a photo, I jog along
behind the wagon until it leads me to Reading Terminal underpass and the Amish Festival. I almost run into a
cow! Now, what a black-and-white spotted cow looking just like Borden’s Daisy is
doing here, I haven’t a clue, but I finally think to get a photo of these ponies--sure, now
that they aren't bouncing like puppies anymore!--before I begin to look for
I notice jugs of dark brown brew. Closer, I see "homemade root beer--50 cents a cup."
After a few each, we wish we had bought a half-gallon jug ($3.95). We’ve had
breakfast at the hotel, but we want to sample Amish cooking. I spot the perfect
I have tasted peach pie I didn’t relish, but this one is scrumptious and without any sugary
or other aftertaste.
We must walk to Market Street to get our bus, but we’ll stop on our way back to the
hotel--not too late for the market, because we’ll have to shower before our Candlelight
Walking Tour of Society Hill, which, incredibly, begins at 6:30pm (sunny and nearly 100°F). I’ll want more root beer then! All the Amish haven’t arrived yet; perhaps there
will be more.
We don’t make it back until late Saturday, after most Amish vendors have left. A band is
playing outside in the underpass, and a few folks linger at tables. We have another peach
pie and look inside for something to take back to the hotel. At a pastry counter, a girl is
buying an Italian pastry I want: crostata di frutta. There are only two, so I wait to
see if she scarfs both. When she buys only one, I take the other. Heavenly! The thick
and flaky pastry wafer covered with Italian cream, fresh pineapple, kiwi, and other fruit
is one of the best-made desserts I’ve had on this continent! Sorry, I devoured it fast and
didn’t think of a photo (or the hotel), but I can tell you that it was beautiful.
I buy plums to take to the room, and they are perfect specimens. My one
disappointment at Reading Market hits me hard--no Philly cheesesteaks! There
are places here where you can buy one and sit and eat it, but they aren’t open late Monday afternoon! Only burger and seafood stands are open, but we find a diner-style restaurant.
Our turkey sandwiches ($7.50) are a full meal, with broccoli, potatoes, and dressing.
We’re glad we’ve stayed next door! Now downstairs for R-1, the airport train.
Reading Terminal Market
12th And Arch Streets
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107
+1 215 922 2317
Attraction | "Charles Wilson Peale Exhibit at Second Bank"
I find the huge collection of portraits fascinating, even though I have intended for this
day to focus on 19th-century artists and their friends.
So here I am, destroying my day’s coherent timeline and retrogressing back to the
founding-fathers’ focus. I guess you just can’t get away from that in Philly!
The Second Bank building itself, designed by William Strickland, is beautiful, pale
marble built in Grecian style modeled after the Parthenon. Inside, the main gallery looks
I take photos of every portrait--and no guard stops me! Each one has a little biographical
note below it, and I find many that aren’t familiar to me. Even though I photograph the
biographical notes for future study, I am compelled to read them all here. Well, this is
the only place I know where one can read about so many of these guys in one place!
That is what takes me so long. Another room has more portraits (185 in all). If you want to
make sure you aren’t overlooking any important 18th-century notables, then you
want to spend more than an hour here.
After studying all the portraits in the front room, I stand in the center of the gallery and
look all around, scanning the collection. This is a good way to get a broad perspective on
everything that was going on in every walk of life over a span of just a few decades,
beginning with the Revolution. Heroes of all backgrounds are represented, even the
Mohawk Chief Thayendanegea. One group represents members of the Philosophical
Society, founded by Ben Franklin. These include David Rittenhouse, astronomer;
William Clark, explorer, cartographer, and botanist; and Robert Fulton, inventor of the
steamboat. Here is Meriwether Lewis:
Another room displays several Supreme Court Justices, and I am especially interested in
John Marshall, since I have been reading about Thomas Jefferson’s dispute with him and
his failure to convict Aaron Burr. I think he looks mean, and I side with Jefferson
anyway on the matter of Supreme Court autonomy.
Since my visit, I have discovered an interesting note on Peale. A student of Benjamin
West before West moved to England. Peale wrote to him after the Revolution to ask if
there was demand in England for portraits of George Washington, and West replied that
the Brits would also like paintings of American military uniforms. Notes in the gallery,
too, instruct us on how artists managed their careers in pre-tech times.
Second Bank of the United States
420 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106
+1 215 597 8974
We start with the 8-minute film that puts into perspective Poe’s six years (1838-1844) in
Philadelphia. He lived in many houses in the city, but only this one survives. His sojourn
here in his rented "rose-covered cottage" with his wife, Virginia Clemm, and her mother,
Maria, was happy and productive. Even Poe himself tells us that in his poem "Annabel
"The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me--"
Perhaps "that was the reason (as all men know... )" that Congress decided to make this
house on Spring Garden Street the national memorial to one of our most cherished
Other Poe houses can be visited in Richmond, Baltimore, and New York. I "toured" the
one-room residence in Richmond in the late 1970s and found it lacking in interest then,
with only a table displaying some manuscripts. When I offer this comment to Andrew
McDougal, he practically jumps up and down, saying, "No, they have the original
manuscripts of... " (I forget which works).
One thing is for certain: our ranger guide is passionate for Poe! He becomes excited
again and again, and his big eyes light up with enthusiasm as he explains why Poe was
more than a "jingle-maker," a label I remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson assigned him
(probably upon reading, "To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells/ From the bells,
bells, bells, bells/ Bells, bells, bells."
I dare to ask if he really considers Poe an intellectual comparable to the Brahman Poets
of New England or transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau. Oh, boy! This is where I
have my preconceived notions about Poe as a mere technician with adolescent subject matter destroyed! It seems that I
have paid attention only to works that the poet intended for public consumption and to
make a living, not those that established his reputation as critic and editor. I hear figures
representing skyrocketing circulation for Burton’s and Graham’s while he
was editor for those literary magazines and quotes from many leading literary figures that
prove their admiration for his concepts. As for the Brahmans, he corresponded with
Longfellow and Lowell.
This is so much fun that we hate to let go of Andrew so that he can eat his lunch. He
lingers to make sure we understand the circumstances of Poe’s death. I know that he was
found drunk in Baltimore on election day and that rumor has it that overzealous poll
workers may have filled him with liquor to get him to vote their ticket. Andrew teaches us the term "cooping," the underhanded practice of taking voters to a cellar and pouring
whiskey down them before taking them to the polls--then changing their clothes and
taking them back again and again! Do you know that our most famous national poet
was found in somebody else’s clothes? That cinches this rendition of his death for me,
but Andrew still chocks it up to coincidence. On election day and in somebody else’s
We haven’t seen the rest of the house yet, so we get our copy of the self-guided
walk-through. Walls have been stripped of 17 coats of paint and wallpaper, and the NPS
doesn’t know yet what they are going to do with them. They want them to look new, as
they did in Poe’s day, and they’re studying alternative treatments for them as we tour.
The empty house has its original fireplaces, and photos and critical commentary are
displayed on closet shelves. We see the bedroom where Poe wrote by candlelight. He
explains in one of his essays that he considers gaslight "ghastly," so he didn’t use the
fixtures with which his brand-new house in Spring Garden suburb was supplied. We talk
about what Poe might have done with today’s technology. Andrew speculates that he
would have loved to work with hi-tech media.
We don’t want to miss the cellar, the one Poe describes in some of his macabre
It is complete with fake fireplace. The poet lived in this house in 1843-44 and wrote
"The Raven," "The Black Cat," "The Goldbug," and "The Tell-Tale Heart" while he lived
here, but the cellar is described in other works, too.
Another room off the visitor center is interesting. It is decorated according to Poe’s
"Philosophy of Furniture," in which the poet pokes fun at aesthetes and effetes. The
room is well furnished with a sofa, table, and chairs, and a mirror hangs "so high that a
man can’t see himself in it."
There is also a painting of nature, one of classical architecture, and, of course, one of a beautiful
woman (living and healthy!), a Thomas Sully portrait.
Andrew engages us in discussion of planned improvements. Next visit, the house may
look new, as it did in Poe’s day, and window scrims may display what the poet saw when
he looked out. I suggest that a hologram of Poe talking about his own life and works
would be nice--I can just imagine how much fun Andrew might have assuming the voice
of Poe for the recording. His first impression is that "It couldn’t be done. The
technology isn’t available." He doesn’t know that Friendship Hill has one of Albert
Gallatin, and when I impart this information to him, he is anxious to call that
National Historical Site to find out how they have managed to get one.
The site presently attracts only 15,000 visitors each year. Nevermore! What school child
doesn’t recognize the name, even the poetry, of Poe? What American can’t quote the first
stanza of The Raven? This is the American poet the French and Russians want to
visit, since Baudelaire translated Poe into French and engineered his revival on the
continent. (As for Philly poet sites, the French tour here, while Brits and Scots
prefer Whitman House, another ranger tells us.)
We learn that Poe’s residence might have been destroyed if not for Richard Gimbel, the
department store magnate who bought the entire block and donated it to the people of
Philadelphia in 1971. The house has been a National Historic Landmark since 1962 and
was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
If I think visitation here is pathetic, I am appalled to learn that Whitman House in
Camden has only 5,000 to 7,000 visitors each year. What? That site is accessible to Philly
visitors via Riverlink Ferry, and we’re headed there next.
West Virginia, United States