A modest wooden-framed structure in Camden, built in Greek-revival style, was the only home ever owned by Walt Whitman. Here is where he grew to international fame as the author of Leaves of Grass, hosted visitors from around the world, and completed his last comprehensive volume of poetry before his death in 1892. Today the home, just a short walk from the southern terminus of New Jersey Transit’s River Line, is preserved and overseen as a New Jersey State Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark, and is open to the public.
Of his last home, Whitman wrote: “Camden was originally an accident, but I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden. It has brought me blessed returns.”
In 1884 Walt Whitman purchased the modest two-story frame house on Mickle Street for $1,750, earned from royalties. Whitman had come to Camden years earlier, in 1873, and lived with his brother George on nearby Stevens Street. By this time Whitman’s international reputation attracted the attention of the days most prominent literary figures. Among them Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde came to Camden to visit America’s greatest poet.
During his years in Camden, Whitman became a friend of the Philadelphia artist, Thomas Eakins. These two giants of 19th century American culture found much to admire in each other’s work. Each in his own medium broke with conventions, creating something new and distinctly American. Eakins photographed Whitman and painted his portrait.
Today the Walt Whitman House, a National Historic Landmark, provides an intimate glimpse into the life of the poet, attracting visitors from around the world. Whitman’s original letters, personal belongings, the bed in which he died, and the death notice that was nailed to the front door have all been preserved, as well as a collection of rare 19th century photographs, including the earliest known image of Whitman — an 1848 daguerreotype.
The Walt Whitman House is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m. Visitors are urged to call 856-964-5383 to arrange an appointment and to confirm hours of operation. This appears to be an important caveat. Callers to an automated information system were told recently, for example, that the house will be closed on Wednesday, November 5.
Some of the reactions of contemporary visitors to Whitman’s chosen city could be similar to those of contemporary visitors who couldn’t figure out why Whitman lived in Camden, which was then, as it is now, a depressed pocket of urban decay overshadowed by Philadelphia, its neighbor across the Delaware River. In 1892 Elbert Hubbard called Camden a “great, sandy, monotonous waste of straggling buildings.”
Visitors to Mickle Street no longer encounter a teeming, dirty, noisy neighborhood. Today the block is aggressively empty and austere, a victim of failed urban renewal. A county jail looms across the street from the Whitman House.
In contrast to the foreboding concrete buildings nearby, the modest house retains much of its 19th-century character: cobblestones remain on the parking strip in front of the house, which offers visitors a tour of a rarely preserved period style: small, dank rooms brightened by whimsical, often clashing wallpaper and rugs. By a stroke of literary luck, the Walt Whitman House has become one of a handful of historically preserved 19th-century working-class houses. “If this weren’t Walt Whitman’s house, it wouldn’t be here,” Margaret O’Neil, a former curator, has been quoted as saying.
Journalists rarely ventured to houses like these on blocks like Mickle Street, so those who went to Walt’s house for interviews were often taken aback. Theodore Wolfe, in his 1895 Literary Shrines: The Haunts of Some Famous American Authors, wrote that “the dingy little two-storied domicile is so disappointingly different from what we were expecting to see that the confirmatory testimony of the name ‘W. Whitman’ upon the door-plate is needed to convince us that this is the oft-mentioned ‘neat and comfortable’ dwelling of one of the world’s celebrities.”
When Hubbard visited in 1883, disconcerted, at the “plain, weather-beaten house” Whitman explained, “I like the folks, the plain, ignorant, unpretentious folks; and the youngsters that come and slide on my cellar-door.”
Whitman’s preference for living with “the folks” seems apt, given his reputation as the bard of the working-class and champion of democracy. But Whitman was hardly sentimental. To Horace Traubel, who chronicled the poet’s final days in With Walt Whitman in Camden, Whitman remarked, “It is always painful to come back into the stinking reeking streets-Mickle Street-sluttish gutters-women with hair a-flying-dust brooms clouding the streets-confinement-the air shot off. Oh!”
Fans of Whitman might find it fitting that the house is understaffed and under-funded, writes Anne Trubeck, an associate professor of English at Oberlin College, who has written about it. After all, she points out, Whitman was always poor and struggling. But Whitman wouldn’t want us to sit back and savor the poetic irony. He would want us to get up and go to Camden for a visit.