The ranger for Walt Whitman House, a National Historic Landmark, is at the
Poe site while we are there, and when he discovers that we are headed for his site
while he has it closed, he offers to give us a session. In a private room, we spend a good
part of an hour listening to Dick Dyer lecture about Whitman, his residence, and his
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.