By: Vince Farinaccio
In his final years, Walt Whitman enjoyed his fame as he delivered lectures and revised and added to the collection of poems for which he is best known.
In the final eight years of his life, poet Walt Whitman finally earned the acclaim he had sought during the previous several decades. But his new fame wasn’t the only change he would experience during these last years in Camden.
According to Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds, Whitman was faced with a quandary in August 1883 when his brother George and sister-in-law Louisa, with whom he had been living on Stevens Street, chose to relocate from their current urban environment to a farm in Burlington. Whitman was asked to join them in their rural venture.
There’s no doubt Whitman must have been tempted by the offer, having spent eight consecutive summers in Laurel Springs at Charles and Susan Stafford’s farm to be close to the reputed rehabilitative waters of this community. While there, he resumed his literary work by writing sections of his prose collection Specimen Days and preparing the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, so the notion of relocating to a rural area surely would have had its appeal. According to Reynolds, in August 1883 Whitman wrote a friend that he was prepared to abandon Camden yet remained uncertain about where to settle.
By March 1884, however, Whitman had resolved to remain in Camden and purchase his own house. He chose a home at 328 Mickle Street at a cost of $1,750. Reynolds reports that “$1,250 came from book royalties and $500 as a loan from his wealthy friend George W. Childs,” a Philadelphia publisher.
Reynolds writes that the purchase “cannot have been called a bargain. He bought it at a bad moment. Camden real estate prices, which had plunged during the 1873-79 depression, were now inflated.” For Whitman, the higher price was offset by the royalties he had been receiving thanks to his newfound fame.
Reynolds reports that Childs, “one of many of the social elite who began to rally to Whitman’s cause,” had previously offered the poet financial aid. In 1878, he told Whitman he would finance a new edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman turned it down, but in 1884 he accepted the $500 for his new home.
According to Reynolds, the newly purchased house “was already rented to an elderly couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Lay, whom Whitman let stay on. He dined with them at first, but it soon became evident that cohabitation with a couple wasn’t going to work in the cramped space at 328 Mickle. The Lays moved out the next January.”
In Whitman’s era, Mickle Street, Reynolds explains, “was alive with sound. The poet was even closer to the railroad tracks than he had been at Stevens Street. Freight and passenger trains rumbled and screeched about a block away night and day…He also liked the nearby factory and shipping sounds, especially what he called ‘the great long bur-r-r of the Phila. whistles from factories or shores often & plainly here sounding.’ Also dear to him was the whistling buoy at a shipyard on nearby King’s Point” which Whitman described as “a sound as if from Ulyssean seas.’”
Over the next eight years, Whitman enjoyed his newfound celebrity as he delivered lectures and revised and added to the work for which he would be best known, Leaves of Grass. During his time in Camden, he produced four editions of this collection of poems, including the 1891-2 “deathbed edition.” Preoccupied with this version during fall 1891, he proclaimed in December of that year “L. of G. at last complete – after 33 y’rs of hacking at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old…”
Over the next several months, Whitman’s health worsened. In December 1889, he had purchased, according to Reynolds, “a twenty-by-thirty-feet lot on a secluded slope” in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery and “contracted with a company to build a tomb that he helped to design…a massive, tall structure with a peaked roof.”
Upon his death on March 26, 1892, Whitman was laid to rest there. Eventually, Reynolds notes, it would serve as the final resting place for his parents, grandmother, brothers Ed and George and sister-in-law Louisa, all interred under the title “Walt Whitman,” the “only name on the structure.”
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