O poet! My poet! Camden fends off Whitman barbs

By Jim Walsh
Special to the Camden, NJ Courier-Post
April 18, 2005

To me, Walt Whitman's always been a Camden guy. I mean, his historic home is in the city. So's his grave. Why, the writer's name even lives on at a Cooper Street institution. (No, not the arts center. I'm talking about McCargo's Creative Cuisine, home of the Whitman Burger.) So imagine my surprise to learn we might have the wrong Whitman.

It seems Camden is actually the home of Geezer Whitman, a poet past his prime who came here old and left stone-cold. Forget Leaves of Grass. Our guy's more Stems and Seeds.

And in the view of some, the great American poet has his real roots elsewhere -- like Long Island and Brooklyn, Manhattan and Washington, D.C. "He initially really did not want to go (to Camden),' says Kim Roberts, a Whitman scholar. She notes Whitman, a New York native, spent 10 years in the nation's capital before a stroke forced him to take refuge at a brother's house on Stevens Street in Camden in 1873.

"Most critics do agree his best work was long behind him (by that time),' she says. "He did not improve with age.'

That hardly bothers South Jerseyans preparing to toast the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass -- a masterpiece written almost two decades before Whitman came to South Jersey.

"What's left here is his physical legacy,' says Leo Blake, curator of the Walt Whitman House on Mickle Boulevard, which will offer special tours during a three-day celebration this week. "His last worldly connection is with Camden.'

And some of the outsiders' claims to Whitman fame seem a bit dubious. Like the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic Site, opposite the Whitman Mall in Huntington Station, N.Y. It's on Old Walt Whitman Road. But considering the poet only lived there until age 4, shouldn't that be Young Walt Whitman Road?

Roberts, in Washington, D.C., acknowledges Camden deserves credit for saving Whitman's final home. Few traces of the poet's past survive elsewhere.

Blake, the local home's curator, notes Whitman could have left Camden in 1884, when his brother moved to Burlington County. Instead, the poet bought a modest house on Mickle Boulevard, a few blocks from the Delaware River.

"Even in his time, it was a really marginal neighborhood,' Roberts says. "There was a fertilizer plant on the water, and if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, his house was infused with the aroma.'

Heck, if that abuse doesn't make Whitman a Camden guy, what does?

And for history buffs, let me close with a little-known account of Whitman's final moments in 1892. It seems a doctor, rushing into Whitman's home, assured a gathering crowd that the writer would survive. But moments later, Whitman died. "Hey,' the doctor emerged to tell the crowd. "The guy was a poet, so he took a turn for the verse.'

Yep. I'm pretty sure that's just how it happened.

Jim Walsh's humor column runs Mondays. Reach him at (856) 486-2646 or jwalsh@courierposton line.com

IF YOU GO

The Walt Whitman House at 328 Mickle Blvd. in Camden is open Wednesday through Sunday. Special tours will be offered Friday and Saturday as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass. For more information, call (856) 964-5383. Groups and individuals are encouraged to call to confirm hours or schedule visits.

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