Kim Roberts on WALT WHITMAN (Page 2 of 4)



When Whitman first arrived, the sight of the city would not have reassured him. As Philip Callow writes in From Noon To Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman, it was "...a half-finished city, in confusion now with its trains of army wagons, a hundred or more to a convoy. The rutted roads turned to mud in the first heavy downpour. Pigs rooted in the dirt side streets. Sewage marshes made the air foul around the White House...a large population of rootless freed slaves lived wretchedly in shantytowns alongside white colonial mansions. It was a 'beginning' place, Whitman was to tell Horace Traubel. 'Go into the markets; it's there you find the busiest, most curious native life of the place. Washington has the insane political element--and then it has itself, its resident blacks and whites. You are just on the edge of the South there--you begin to penetrate Dixie.'"

Callow calls it a place "...swamped by a tide of newcomers, office seekers, profiteers, and swindlers, prostitutes, bereaved wives and families, strangers like him hunting for loved ones...Accommodations were scarce, prices rocketing. Deserters and derelicts roamed the night streets."

Whitman was fortunate to find decent housing at all in wartime Washington. He moved often, sometimes corresponding to a yearly visit home to see his family, once because he was evicted, and sometimes merely because he found another place that pleased him better. Boarding house life seemed to suit Whitman well: it surrounded him with people, yet allowed Whitman to retain a sense of reserve, not threatening him with the demands of intimacy. This transitory lifestyle fit his temperament, which was simultaneously scared of, and yearning for, a connection to others. As Nelly O'Connor would write years later of this time, Whitman had an "elusive disposition" and a "dislike to be bound in any way."

If a tour of all the boarding houses where Whitman took up temporary residence in DC already exists, I have not found it. What follows is a list I pieced together from correspondence, biographies and guidebooks, then verified by checking DC City Directories for each year of his residence.

None of the houses still stand. As cities grow and change, and buildings are replaced, street numbers are also modified, and sometimes disappear altogether. To make matters more confusing, the street numbering system during the Civil War was not regularized to correspond to cross streets, as it is today. All addresses before 1870 were numbered as buildings were erected, so Whitman's house in the 300 block of L Street was not located between 3rd and 4th Streets (as it would be today), but close to 14th Street.

Going to these places, much as they've changed, has a powerful effect. The sites are a primary source for understanding Whitman. They show the proximity of his homes to hospitals and workplaces, but there's more than that as well, something intangible that I can only describe as a spiritual connection. There are layers of history on the landscape, a social landscape lain atop the actual earth. Some people have a very strong presence on the land. Whitman's touch was very light in the monumental or architectural sense--he was after all working class--but very deep in the personal sense. His presence in DC changed lives, and, in a couple of documented cases, saved lives. DC, in turn, changed him.

Whitman's first Washington home was at 394 L St. N., near Vermont Avenue and the "4th door above 14th St." as Whitman described in a letter. This site is now the multi-story office tower housing the American Medical Association (entrance at 1101 Vermont Ave. NW). Considering that Whitman came to the city to provide volunteer medical services, this is a nice coincidence.

Whitman rented in the same house as his friend William O'Connor. He had planned to stay only temporarily, and visited a number of boarding houses after his first week--but O'Connor and his wife Nelly kept encouraging him to stay. They provided Whitman with a warm welcome and a home-like atmosphere. The O'Connors occupied two rooms on the third floor, for which, Whitman noted, they paid "the extraordinary price of $25 a month. I have a werry little room on the 2d floor" which he rented for $7 a month.

Whitman wrote to this mother after five months of this arrangement, " I say they won't listen to me leaving--but I shall do so, I think--I can never forget their kindness & real friendship & it appears as though they would continue the same, if it were for all our lives."

The O'Connors quickly became Whitman's surrogate family. Both husband and wife were radicals and idealists who supported feminist and abolitionist causes. Both came from Massachusetts and working class backgrounds. But they were mismatched in temperament and their marriage was ultimately not a success. William was a novelist who worked as a clerk for the Light-House Board (then part of the Treasury Department). He was known to be moody and high-strung, and he had a number of extramarital affairs whose details he did not keep secret from Whitman. This increased Whitman's sympathy for Nelly, who was evidently somewhat homely, more of interest to her husband for her mind than her body. Nelly had grown up supporting herself, first as a factory worker, then a governess and school teacher. When Whitman met her, she was finally middle class enough to afford to stay at home with her children--but Whitman moved in while she was still in mourning for Philip, who had died at two years old of smallpox. An older daughter, Jeannie, was 5 when Whitman joined their household. Whitman seemed to fill an emotional void for Nelly after Philip's death.

The house itself was not to Whitman's taste. There were two front doors, each outfitted with multiple locks and bolts, and the owners had a bulldog standing watch over the back yard. Later Whitman recalled to his mother "...we were well fortified I tell you--sometimes I had an awful time at night getting in."

The owners of the house were Carey Gwynne and his wife. Whitman described the man of the house as "a mixture of booby, miser & hog...the landlady is a good woman, Washington raised..." When the Gwynnes announced the pending sale of the house, the O'Connors found new lodgings and moved out immediately, but Whitman stayed on a few more months alone, until the new owners moved in. His letters to his family in New York during this time sound particularly homesick.

In one letter to a friend, Nathaniel Bloom, Whitman reported, "[I] make enough money to pay my expenses--I have a little room, & live a sort of German or Parisian student life." Later, as he aged, making just enough money for his expenses and moving from place to place, he noted that his fellow boarders seemed to get younger.

His next house, at 456 6th Street W., was close enough to the O'Connors so that he could eat supper with them daily. Whitman moved to this site in October of 1863, and described it as a three-story structure with an addition in the back and a southern exposure ("seems to be going to prove a very good winter room, as it is right under the roof & looks south, has low windows, is plenty big enough, I have gas--I think the lady will prove a good woman"). The landlady was Mrs. Eliza S. Baker, who was living alone with her young granddaughter. Whitman's was the only attic room, and he was the only boarder; he noted the extra privacy in his letters, as well as a sunny side yard with grass and trees that provided "sweet and good air." Whitman's rent increased to $10 a month at this boarding house. He paid a $5 deposit in advance when he moved in, which he carefully recorded in a notebook, and had his landlady sign. This receipt included the promise that he "Is to have the privilege of keeping it through the winter, if he desires." Whitman wrote to his mother that the front doors were always kept unlocked, much to his satisfaction after the high security of the Gwynne's. This site is now the US Securities and Exchange Commission (entrance at 415 6th Street NW).

In May of 1864, he moved to 502 Pennsylvania Ave., now part of the Capitol grounds, on a triangle of land across from the Reflecting Pool at the base of Capitol Hill. This was at that time across the street from the U.S. Botanic Garden, which was prominently centered on the Mall with the Capitol immediately behind it (much later, in 1933, the Botanic Garden was shifted south to its present location off Independence Avenue).

Although the living conditions here were worse than his previous lodgings (he described them in one letter as "miserable"), Whitman favored this house for its location close to the Capitol and Armory Square Hospital. He wrote, "I have a room to myself, 3d story hall bedroom. I have my meals in the house." He ate with the O'Connors only on holidays and Sunday evenings. At this point, Whitman began having his own health problems, most likely picked up from soldiers he was nursing, many of whom he lavished with kisses and caresses. He complained of spells of faintness and headaches, which he attributed partly to his lodgings, which he complained had "very bad air." (Most Washingtonians believed, as Whitman evidently did, that homes closer to the Mall, at lower elevations than most of the city, were less healthy. Certainly these properties were more subject to flooding from the Potomac River and the canal that ran along what is today Constitution Avenue.) He eventually gave up his room and returned to his mother in Brooklyn to rest and recover, an extended vacation lasting from the end of June through the end of January 1865.

When he returned to Washington, he moved to 468 M St. N., the home of Edward and Juliet Grayson. Whitman considered this neighborhood, in contrast to his previous address, "the healthiest, sweetest part of Washington." He was again near the O'Connors and close enough to walk to the Patent Office, where he was now working. (By this time the Patent Office was no longer a hospital and had been returned to its originally-designated use.) This house site, located on M Street between 12th and 13th Streets, is now the site of the Claridge Tower Apartments, a huge ugly brick box that covers most of the block, east of Thomas Circle.

Whitman noted in his letters that his landlords, the Graysons, were Southern sympathizers, and their son was in the Rebel army. Of the landlady, he wrote "...she is different from any I have found yet here, is very obliging, starts my fire for me at 5 o'clock every afternoon, & lights the gas, even & then turns it down to be ready for me when I come home."

Whitman's former boarding house at this location was not far from Vermont Avenue, President Lincoln's route between Anderson House, the presidential summer quarters (now on the grounds of Soldier's Home) and the White House. Whitman used to awaken early to watch Lincoln pass during good weather, and wrote, "Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dress'd in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man...We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones."

Whitman returned to Brooklyn briefly in April, to attend to family business. Lincoln was shot on April 14, while Whitman was away. Coincidentally, Peter Doyle was attending Ford's Theater that night, and witnessed Booth's leap to the stage and escape, as well as the procession that carried the President across the street to the Peterson House. Doyle, along with a large crowd, stayed half the night in the street in front of the theater.

In August of 1865, still at 468 M Street, Whitman transferred to the front room because "it is pleasanter--I have my meals brought up to me--my landlady gives me very good grub, $32.50 a month." He considered the address "a little bit out of the way in location" but praised his "good big bed."

In February 1866, he moved again, to 364 13th Street W., between L and K Streets. This is now the location of a multi-story office building (entrance at 1220 L Street NW). It is worth noting that one of the major tenants of this building is the William C. Smith Company--one of the largest owners of rental properties in the city, the modern equivalent of a boarding house owner.

By this time, the city had changed drastically. Whitman complained in a letter to Alfred Pratt (a former soldier Whitman nursed) in December of 1866, in the heart of winter: "Washington is rather dull--no more soldiers around like there used to be--no more patrols marching around the streets--no more great racks of hospitals--I get along well enough in this city in pleasant weather, when one can go around, but it's rough in bad weather."

Despite the lack of excitement, Whitman was settling in. On November 1, 1866, he was promoted to Third Class Clerk, his first permanent government position, earning a salary of $1,600 a year. The following March, he received a pay raise of 20%, earning an additional $25 a month.

In 1867 Whitman moved to 472 M Street N., the DC home where he lived the longest. He rented a cramped attic apartment, just two doors down from his 1865 address in the Grayson home. This address has also been absorbed into the Claridge Tower Apartments.

Although his accomodations here were small, he had his own wood stove "& can have a fire when I want it." In a letter to Alfred Pratt in October 1867, Whitman deemed this new household "quite pleasant--mostly young people, full of life & gayety." Whitman reported to his mother, "I like my boarding house very well, take it altogether--we have a tip-top table--& the folks are kind & accomodating."

His landlady, Mrs. Newton Benedict, worked for the Treasury and came originally from New York State, as Whitman did. Because she worked outside the home, she "...leaves things to her servants, black women." Whitman noted, "I like her very well--& the place is probably as good a one as I could get."

The city regularized its street numbering system in 1870 to correspond with cross streets, so his address after that time, 1205 M Street NW, was the exact same house as his former address of 472 M Street N. (The city had been preparing its citizens for this confusing change beginning in 1867, and it is the City Directory from that year that guided me in translating the pre-1870 addresses into modern addresses.) He stayed on here through mid-July 1870, at which time he returned to New York for approximately three months, while he saw three books through the printing process: the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass, Passage to India, and his prose collection, Democratic Vistas.

In mid-October 1870 he returned to DC. He may have stayed for a short time at the St. Cloud Hotel (Whitman wrote to William O'Connor from Brooklyn, asking him to reserve a room for his return). Located on the northeast corner of 9th and F Streets NW, advertisements from the period tout the hotel as "the most central location in the city," with a street car stop located conveniently right outside the front door. I cannot definitively confirm that he stayed there, or indeed where he lived for the next two years. He directed correspondents to write to his work address, and even listed his work address, rather than his home, in the annual City Directories for 1871, 1872, and 1873.

By 1873, however, Whitman was at his final DC address, at 535 15th Street NW, across from the Treasury Department and now the site of the Hotel Washington (entrance at 515 15th St. NW). Whitman rented an attic room here across the street from his last place of employment, where he suffered his paralyzing stroke while working late one evening. He had stayed at the office to avoid going home to his underheated attic room. As he noted in a letter to his mother, "I spend quite a good deal of time, evenings & Sundays, in the office at my desk, as I can get into the Treasury building any time, as the door-keepers all know me--nearly all of them are broken down or one-legged soldiers--The office is warm & nice, with gas, & all the modern improvements."

After the stroke late in the evening on January 23, somehow he managed to drag himself down the office stairs and the few hundred feet to his boarding house, then up the stairs to his bed, but that night he awoke and realized he couldn't move his legs. A doctor was called the next morning and although he did rally somewhat, he was never really well ever again. His left side was partially paralyzed, and his doctor, Dr. Drinkard, prescribed bed rest and electric shock treatments administered to his legs. At first Peter Doyle and his old friend and former Boston publisher, Charles Eldridge, took turns staying with Whitman during the days and nights "helping & lifting & nursing me" as he reported to his mother, but as a full recovery began to seem more and more remote, Whitman realized that he would have to make other plans. He was frustrated "to be disabled, so feeble, cannot walk nor do anything, when one's mind & will are just as clear as ever."

Whitman moved to Camden, NJ in 1873, where he had family to care for him and where he ended his days. Although he continued his nursing until the last war hospital closed in 1866, it was not until his stroke seven years later that he moved. He did so then only involuntarily, at the urging of family and friends, upon whom he was dependent.

Whitman never came to DC intending to stay--but after the Civil War ended he seems to have had no intent to leave either. He formed some of his deepest friendships here, with the O'Connors and Peter Doyle, as well as former soldiers. He matured here. Had it not been for his stroke, I believe he would have stayed in Washington for the rest of his life.


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