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Sunday, June 18, 2017

My Talk as the Featured Speaker at Walt Whitman's 198th Birthday Party, the Whitman House, Camden

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York and died on March 26, 1892 in the Mickel Street house. Walt called this house a “shack.”

 He went to a
Brooklyn public school but dropped out at age 11, a common thing in those one-room schoolhouse days. He didn’t write very much about his school experiences although he did manage to write a short story "Death in the School Room (A Fact).” The story detailed the frequent use of corporal punishment by teachers in those days. You might say that public school life then was the reverse of what it is today: tyranny by students.

As a young writer, Walt liked to concentrate on themes like cruel or apathetic parents and their depressed, angst-ridden sons. One of the poet’s first jobs was in the printing office of Samuel E. Clements, a Quaker who wore an enormous broad-brimmed loghorn hat in the summer months. According to one of my favorite Whitman biographers, Jerome Loving, young Walt learned how to "parse and spell” at Clements’ composing table, the same way that Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain learned to write.

The first newspapers in
America were simple operations where the reporter was also the printer. That later changed when the printing was done separately.

Young Walt worked for a variety of printers. Later, he became a school teacher but returned to printing when he started his own newspaper, The Long Islander. The best part of having your own newspaper, Walt recalled, was delivering the papers on horseback.  Walt’s earliest published poem was "Our Future Lot,” about the one common denominator that unites humankind: death. Walt also wrote essays about the evils of smoking, flogging, fashion, materialism and the stupidity of quarreling.

Walt was outside political parties and in many ways he was antagonistic towards them. He was also a poor man at least judged by modern standards. He had an immense sympathy for the lives of the poor but he enjoyed the company of the wealthy too. He was no fool. There are both mansions and shacks along the Open Road.   

As a young man he was too much of a poet to be a good newspaper or editorial writer. One has only to read Democratic Vistas (1871) to see how much of a rambling prose writer he could be. 

He opposed capital punishment and for a time was an advocate of the temperance movement, writing a novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. The book was published in 1842 as a small novel and its author listed as Walter Whitman. The story was a sensationalistic screed against the evils of alcohol. Walt later disavowed the temperance movement. In his bohemian years when he lived in Manhattan, he would frequent Pfaff’s cellar restaurant and saloon, a carousing, boisterous ”arty” place that attracted artists of all types. Even then it is said that the poet would sit back and nurse a lager or two for the longest time while his friends drank themselves under the table. After he turned 60, on the advice of his doctor, Walt began to drink native American wines and champagne.

 When he lived on Mickle Street he was plagued by the appearance of an imposter, an artist who dressed as he dressed and who looked very much like him. The artist was the opposite of a teetotaler and could be seen wobbling around town. This wasn’t good for Walt’s reputation.  People talked and gossip filled the Open Road.

Walt was, as his biographers note, a big giver of gifts because to love is to both give and receive.

In 1857, The Brooklyn Daily Times described Walt as "a tall, well-built man [who] wore high boots over his pants, a jacket of heavy dark blue cloth, always left open to show a woolen undershirt, and a red handkerchief tied around his brawny neck.” Once when Walt spoke at an upscale
Center City literary club the organizer, writer Agnes Repplier, feared that his talk would be as roughhewn as his farmer’s clothes but it turned out that he spoke like a prophet and a mystic. Clothes don’t make the man—or the woman—on the Open Road

This Mickle Street house was known as a quiet and grassy place in the 1890s but Walt was not a good housekeeper. Some at that time described the interior of the house as “filled with undesirable confusion.”  Walt liked to scatter his papers on the floor, sometimes mixing them with the wood that he used for his stove. The Open Road was sometimes messy but when friends tried to clean it up, Walt got annoyed. Walt did manage to have fresh flowers on the first floor window sill, however, and of course his canary was not endlessly rocking but endlessly singing.

 So many visitors came and went. The Mickle Street house became a place of pilgrimage.

  A Japanese journalist, once visited him in the garden where we are gathered here today. They talked and feasted on canned lobster and California wine. Walt talked about the American West and especially of Denver, the queen of Western cities.

His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, was very controversial during his lifetime, in some cases ending friendships and even getting him fired from his job in
Washington with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Critics either loved or hated his work. His book was banned in Boston but his champions included many literary greats like Oscar Wilde, George Elliot and (to some degree), the cantankerous Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Walt had his literary biases. He had a distaste for so called gloomy writers like Edgar Allan Poe.

It should be noted that when Walt moved into the Mickle Street house he became a home owner for the first time in his life at age 65.

Walt gave a number of
Lincoln lectures in Philadelphia and Boston after the president’s assassination. During the Civil War he worked for a number of years as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War hospitals of Washington DC where he looked after dying and wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. Walt favored the Union but he would not take sides when it came to his hospital work. His most intimate friend, Peter Doyle, for instance, was an ex-Confederate soldier who was present in Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was assassinated.

Walt always believed that the nation’s capital would be moved from
Washington to one of the cities of the west. "Why be content to have the Government lop-sided over on the Atlantic, far, far from itself—the trunk [west], the genuine America?” he wrote.

Before moving to Mickle Street, the poet stayed with friends at 1929 North Twenty-Second Street where in the summer he would sit with his host family on the stoop or doorstep.

Whitman’s voice, according to one friend, was "full-toned, rather high [and] baritone.” This same friend said that when Whitman read books "he would tear it to pieces—literally shed it leaves…”

One of the poet’s favorite pastimes was "keeping track of his fame in the press.”

Walt was obsessed with personal cleanliness but wherever he lived he created immense disorder with papers stacked on the floor and the curtains of his room twisted in the style of ropes to let in more sunlight.

Walt also spent a lot of time in
Germantown and on the banks of the Wissahickon. He would ride the ferries on the Delaware in all kinds of weather, leaning over the boat like an old ship captain. He claimed that he once hobbled halfway across the frozen Delaware but then turned back when he sensed that the ice was getting thin. He observed, and commented on, the view of Philadelphia City Hall during its construction. He liked to hang out at the base of Market Street where he would converse with workers, roughnecks and tramps, but when evening came he would head to the opera. Before his death on March 26, 1892, he was able to purchase a wheelchair on credit from Wanamaker’s Department store.

And who knew that Bram Stoker used Walt as his character study for Dracula?

Walt grew cranky in his old age but since he had a lot of aches and pains, he can be excused for his bad moods. The Open Road is not a bed of roses. It comes with thorns, closed gas stations and occasional road blocks. Bad weather is to be expected. The thing is to keep moving and wait for the sunshine despite the road’s many irritations. Walt’s temper could be a terrible thing, but as fast as it went up, it went down. And he was always ready to forgive people. Good lesson for all Open Road travelers, I’d say.

If age 40 is the new 20, and age 60 is the new 40, then age 70 must be the new 45 or 50. But Walt at 70 was really an old man --- people did not age well in the 1890s. Walt was often sleepless and suffering…from 1888 to 1889 he was totally house bound, trapped in his Mickle Street shack, anchored to the big chair in the front room. Many critics surmise that he survived on his Open Road memories. Thinking back and remembering again.   

At the time of Walt’s death in his bed on
Mickle Street (an autopsy was preformed on the first floor of the house where there was also a viewing), he was the most famous poet in America.

The Open Road appeared to be over but in reality it was just beginning. Our Open Road graybeard is more alive today than ever.