328 Mickle Street, Camden, New Jersey

The home of Walt Whitman from 1884 to 1892

The home of Walt Whitman from 1884 to 1892

One starts by looking for lilacs.

But standing in the backyard on a weekday, surrounded by old trees and plants in their first flower and by a city that is dissipating, you find yourself distracted by something, something that you can’t quite put your finger on.

As you search for it, you are told that he liked it here because it reminded him of the past. Because this little house in this working-hard-town a ferry-ride from a big bustling city, reminded him of the days before the great war. Hard days to be sure, but through the warming glow of recollection, the best days. When the leaves were young and so was he.

And then they will tell you that he bought this house when his brother, emblem of the growing country in his own way as Walt was in his, moved further into the country. When Walt, old and grey as he was, decided that this was far enough. Camden. Because he loved the city? Because he was so tired of his brother and his brother’s wife? These are questions no one but Walt could answer, and he’s, uncharacteristically, not talking about why he stayed.

Now, standing in the backyard, it feels lovely and peaceful on this boulevard heading down towards the river. But it was different then. For example, it smelled here. Great factories were nearby, belching smoke and all manner of effluence into the air in that gloriously unchecked nineteenth manner. Trains plying their trade between New York and Philadelphia passed nearby as well, adding the outrageous screams of steel wheels and the howls of steam whistles to what most have been a fairly gargantuan smell.

But you would not expect anything less olfactory from Walt. You can not imagine him living in an antiseptic drawing room, and indeed, although there are those quaint nineteenth century touches – the stiff portraits on the mantle, the furniture covered in horsehair, the antimacasssers – it’s still feels, even at this great remove, a fairly working class place. A place of sweat and exertion.

And yet, you are nagged by the idea that, somehow, he does not belong here.

For what could contain him? You look at the pictures and you look at the words, and that’s when you begin to have a sense of the size of his soul. You begin to think of him in a manner unlike other people. And perhaps that was merely a nineteenth century thing. Melville, Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson. These were men who, had souls that were bigger than their bodies, bigger than their houses, bigger even than this incredible nation they were trying to understand. You felt it in what they wrote – not bravura, not bravado, although there may have been that as well. But that they were aiming so much higher, so much bigger than anything we aim at today. That they had some innate understanding of the mind-numbing colossal bigness of the country that they were standing on tiny edge of, that they understood the promise and possibility they were on the precipice of, and instead of feeling small and worthless in the shadow of it, responded to the challenge and grew to it. Endeavored to match it. As audacious and outrageous as that seems. To make the man match the country.

But then you realize, well, he has to live somewhere. Because as much as the poetry is an outdoor thing, as much as the words fairly blow off the page with great tornados of passion and exuberance, as much as the dirt and stones of America, the wheat fields and the scythes, the sweat and sun of a nation just starting to test itself are there in every line and syllable and word, you know that there was a man behind it, and that a man has to have a place to lay down his head at night. And so there is this place.

And you are struck again by how unremarkable it looks. How there does not seem to be a stamp of his personality on it. Unlike, say, Twain’s house which fairly reeks of him at every turn. Is this the logical result of having spent so many years as a boarder? As a guest in other’s homes? Did his imagination not extend to the permission to inflict himself upon these simple working class walls? Or was it that because he was so big, because his soul so wide and enormous, that the canvas of this tiny house on Mickle Street was too small for him to inscribe. For one who is used to writing on the souls of a nation, perhaps a simple house was almost invisible to him.

Back in the house, they will show you his tub and they will show you his bed, and then they will show you the notice the doctor wrote and nailed to his door the day he died. And I don’t know, perhaps this was commonplace in that era. But from this great remove it looks like nothing so much as the kind of note you’d leave for a friend, explaining that you’d stepped out for a bit, but that you’d be back shortly. As if Walt had merely slipped out the back door, to go tramping again. Free of the writing, of the house and of the earthly body. To loaf. To lean. To celebrate. Gone.

~ by martinbihl on December 19, 2008.

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