Walt Whitman’s Camden residency beginning in June 1873 might seem incongruous at first glance since many of his writings celebrated the world of nature and had little to do with industrial behemoths like the one Camden had become in the late 19th century. Yet it proved to be a suitable match for Whitman’s final 19 years for more than a few reasons.
David S. Reynolds, in his book Walt Whitman’s America, notes that “Camden was much like the Brooklyn of Whitman’s youth: a small but fast-growing industrial city linked by ferries to a major city across a beautiful river.” Ferries had been in place since colonial times but, as the 19th century progressed, factories became as much a mainstay as ferryboats. According to online sources, 80 factories inhabited Camden in 1860. Three years prior to Whitman’s arrival, the number had increased to 125.
In the 1871-72 edition of Whitman’s masterwork, Leaves of Grass, new poetic additions had turned from the topics of nature and the Civil War to what Reynolds calls the poet’s “relationship to the new America…praising technology and using it as a metaphor for eventual poetic and religious fruition,” a means whereby “the cultural unification [of the country] he had been seeking might be achieved through the technological-industrial feats Americans were celebrating.” Whitman’s relocation to Camden could be seen as the writer embracing his new literary philosophy.
Residing with his brother George and sister-in-law Louisa at 322 Stevens Street and, beginning in October 1873, at 431 Stevens Street, Whitman would have been very familiar with factory noises from his city block and beyond. “Several blocks way,” Reynolds reports, “at the foot of Steven Street, was the Camden Iron Works, with six large foundries covering twenty acres…Also on Stevens was the imposing brick building of the Camden Tool and Tube Works…Less than half a mile to the west of the Whitman house, along the Delaware shore across from Philadelphia, stretched a line of busy lumber mills that made a distant whirring sound.”
The railroad was a source of fascination for Whitman. He wrote in a letter to a friend, “the trains of the Camden and Amboy [Railroad] are going by on the track about 50 or 60 rods from here, puffing and blowing…whisking and squealing, up the track and down again – I often sit and watch them long…”
Life in Camden, however, would provide Whitman with the opportunity to witness first-hand the effects of a national economic downturn on an industrialized city. The Panic of 1873, or what was known at the time as The Long Depression, began September 18, 1873 when Jay Cooke and Company, the prominent Philadelphia banking firm connected with the early stages of the Northern Pacific Railroad, suspended payments on notes it had issued in a prelude to its declaration of bankruptcy. “Businesses failed by the hundreds,” Reynolds writes. “Steel production plummeted by 40 percent and other basic industries operated at minimum levels.”
Witnessing how the economic downturn affected industrial workers, Whitman seemed to give pause to his new outlook toward a technological future. As the nation attempted to right itself economically, he abandoned his writings about the new America and, when he resumed later in the decade, he would, in the words of Reynolds, “only contemplate the devastating results of the depression.”
Despite this, however, Whitman never regretted his decision to live in Camden, writing to a friend, “I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden! It has brought me blessed returns.”
In 1874, he purchased a lot on Royden Street for $450 with the intention of building a house on it, a plan that never reached fruition before he sold the property eight years later. At the time, he had been paying an average of $3.60 per week rent to his brother for his Stevens Street lodging, an amount that Reynolds calculates was “about a third of what he would have had to pay had he rented a small house on his own.”
In 1876, Whitman would produce his next edition of Leaves of Grass and arrive at a turning point in his physical health with the help of another South Jersey location. We’ll examine that when this series continues.