Archive for » October, 2009 «

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009 | Author:

On May 31, 1889, Walt Whitman’s seventieth birthday, 2,209 people were killed when the South Fork Dam failed, sending a wall rushing water and debris cascading into the riverside town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was the largest civilian loss of life in American history up to that time (McCullough, 4). It was also one of the first major disaster relief efforts led by the American Red Cross, under the direction of Clara Barton.

source: Library of Congress

source: Library of Congress

The dam, located 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, held back the artificial Lake Conemaugh, a canal basin that the state never completed due to emergence of the railroad. The lake was sold to private interests and became part of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, playground for wealthy Pittsburgh steel executives. The owners had made questionable modifications to the dam, lowering it in order to build a road on top of it. These modifications, along with poor maintenance and record rainfall were blamed for the dam’s failure.

On May 30, 1889, a storm swept over western Pennsylvania from the Midwest dumping six to ten inches of rain over western Pennsylvania. The following day, as Lake Conemaugh swelled, an impromptu team of men tried to clear debris from the dam spillway. At 3:10, the dam burst and the lake spilled into the narrow Little Conemaugh River, picking up houses, farm animals, people, barns, bridges, barbed wire, and train cars as it moved downstream. By the time the water and debris reached Johnstown, eyewitnesses reported it was 40 feet high and a half-mile wide (Loving, 116). At least 80 people died in the fires the followed as the debris that had piled up behind a rail bridge began to burn. Four square miles of Johnstown were completely destroyed. 1600 homes were lost. 2209 people, including 396 children and 99 entire families perished.

By the evening, the storm had reached Camden, where Walt Whitman and his supporters were celebrating the poet’s seventieth birthday party at Morgan’s Hall. Whitman was deeply saddened by the disaster. He found it ironic that the tragedy occurred during the height of his birthday celebration (Reynolds, 573).

Horace Traubel recorded Whitman’s remarks six days after flood.

8 P.M. Went down to W.’s with Harned, finding W. sitting in parlor at the window. Had but a little time before returned from his outing. Talked directly of the Johnstown affair. “It seems to hang over us all like a cloud,” he said—”a dark, dark, dark cloud.” And then he asked: “Do you think this Cambria matter interferes at all with the passage of the mails? We all live in Cambria County now (Traubel, 264).

Whitman wrote “A Voice from Death” about the flood victims. The poem was published in the New York World on June 7, 1889, only a week after the flood. Whitman was paid $25.

With sudden, indescribable blow–towns drown’d–humanity by
thousands slain,
The vaunted work of thrift, goods, dwellings, forge, street, iron bridge,
Dash’d pell-mell by the blow–yet usher’d life continuing on,
(Amid the rest, amid the rushing, whirling, wild debris,
A suffering woman saved–a baby safely born!)
Although I come and unannounc’d, in horror and in pang,
In pouring flood and fire, and wholesale elemental crash, (this
voice so solemn, strange,)
I too a minister of Deity.
Yea, Death, we bow our faces, veil our eyes to thee,
We mourn the old, the young untimely drawn to thee,
The fair, the strong, the good, the capable,
The household wreck’d, the husband and the wife, the engulfed forger
in his forge,
The corpses in the whelming waters and the mud,
The gather’d thousands to their funeral mounds, and thousands never
found or gather’d.
Then after burying, mourning the dead,
(Faithful to them found or unfound, forgetting not, bearing the
past, here new musing,)
A day–a passing moment or an hour–America itself bends low,
Silent, resign’d, submissive.
War, death, cataclysm like this, America,
Take deep to thy proud prosperous heart.
E’en as I chant, lo! out of death, and out of ooze and slime,
The blossoms rapidly blooming, sympathy, help, love,
From West and East, from South and North and over sea,
Its hot-spurr’d hearts and hands humanity to human aid moves on;
And from within a thought and lesson yet.
Thou ever-darting Globe! through Space and Air!
Thou waters that encompass us!
Thou that in all the life and death of us, in action or in sleep!
Thou laws invisible that permeate them and all,
Thou that in all, and over all, and through and under all, incessant!
Thou! thou! the vital, universal, giant force resistless, sleepless, calm,
Holding Humanity as in thy open hand, as some ephemeral toy,
How ill to e’er forget thee!
For I too have forgotten,
(Wrapt in these little potencies of progress, politics, culture,
wealth, inventions, civilization,)
Have lost my recognition of your silent ever-swaying power, ye
mighty, elemental throes,
In which and upon which we float, and every one of us is buoy’d.

Work Cited

Loving, Jerome “The Political Roots of Leaves of Grass.” A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman. Ed. David S. Reynolds.New York, NY: Oxford UP (2000): 116-117. Google Books. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.

McCullough, David G. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 4-81. Google Books. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden Volume 5. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Carbondale: U of Southern Illinois P, 1964. Google Books. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

Whitman, Walt. “A Voice from Death.” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America College Editions, 1996. Print.

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Monday, October 19th, 2009 | Author:

Camden’s role as a rail hub led to its rapid industrial growth in the nineteenth century. In the 1880s, the city had six railroads. Among the most important were the Camden and Amboy, and the Camden and Atlantic.

The Camden and Amboy Railroad was the first railroad in New Jersey one first in the United States. It was completed in 1834, connecting Camden to South Amboy on the Raritan River, where passengers could continue via ferry to New York City. Though it was called the Camden and Amboy Railroad, its real purpose was to monopolize travel through New Jersey between Philadelphia and New York City. It was the first railroad to use the all-iron flanged “T” rail, which would become standard on all US railroads (Lorett, 8).

image source: Library of Congress

image source: Library of Congress

The State of New Jersey granted the Delaware & Raritan Canal Company & Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company a limited-time monopoly in exchange for 1000 shares of the company.

image source: library of congress

image source: library of congress

Ownership of the Camden and Amboy Railroad changed several times over the nineteenth century through a complicated series of mergers, acquisitions, and leases. The Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad opened in 1836, offering a more direct route to New York City. However, the P&T terminal was inconveniently located in Kensington, far from Center City. Most passengers preferred to take the Camden and Amboy because its waterfront terminal was easily reached by ferry from Philadelphia.

1869 route map. image source: Rutgers University Mapmaker

1869 route map. image source: Rutgers University Mapmaker

Perhaps more famous than the railroad itself was John Bull, the original steam locomotive that served the railroad until 1866. The locomotive was built in Newcastle, England (no American company built locomotives at that time) dismantled and shipped without instructions on how to put it together. Camden and Amboy engineer Isaac Dripps reassembled it according to his intuition. The engine was originally called the Stevens, in honor of the railroad’s founder Robert L. Stevens. Over time, the crew began calling it the “Old John Bull” in a reference tothe cartoon caricature of Great Britain, similar to America’s Uncle Sam. In 1981, the John Bull was started up again, making it the world’s oldest running locomotive. It is currently in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

source: Library of Congress

source: Library of Congress

Just a few blocks south was another important railroad, the Camden and Atlantic, which connected Camden to Atlantic City in trip that took just over an hour. Completed in 1854, the railroad was instrumental in transforming a thinly inhabited island to a thriving resort town. In fact, the Camden and Atlantic’s board of directors founded and planned the city. Atlantic City’s grid pattern intentionally copied Philadelphia’s, so that tourists from Philadelphia wouldn’t get lost in the resort city. The famous Boardwalk was the brainchild of Camden and Atlantic conductor Alexander Boardman. Atlantic City was a major summer escape for sweltering middle class city dwellers during the nineteenth century. Whitman frequently used to railroad to visit the Atlantic shore.


Railroads were a theme in Whitman’s writing before he moved to Camden in 1874. For the poet, railroads were a powerful, unifying symbol of the modern age, the “pulse of the continent” (Nye, 172). He celebrates railroads in his 1870 poem “Passage to India.”

The earth to be spann’d connected by network

The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,

The lands to be welded together.

A new worship I sing,

You captains, voyagers, explorers, yours,

You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours

But in God’s name, and for thy sake O soul.

Historian David E. Nye wrote: “ . . . for Whitman the train was a part of a larger ‘passage to India’ that would link the Atlantic and Pacific and place the United States at the center of world commerce. He saw this “marriage of continents, climates and oceans” as more than the completion of Columbus’ voyages, for it intimated transcendent journey to the stars. . . The force of the locomotive became symbolic of the power to remake the land and to found new communities.” (Nye, 172).

Whitman mentions the Camden and Amboy Railroad in a letter from 1874, when he was living with his brother on nearby Stevens Street.

“The trains of the Camden & Amboy are going by on the track about 50 or 60 rods from here, puffing & blowing – often train after train, following each other – following each other – & locomotives singly, whisking & squealing, up the track & then down again – I often sit and watch them long … ”

It is likely that the trains from the Camden and Amboy Railroad inspired his 1876 poem “To a Locomotive in Winter”. The legendary John Bull locomotive was retired in 1866, before Whitman moved to Camden, so it is doubtful that he is referring to it here.

Thee for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining,
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating,
shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance,
Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple,
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of
thy wheels,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern–emblem of motion and power–pulse of the continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps
at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake,
rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

The Camden and Amboy tracks ran just feet from the house at 328 Mickle Street where Whitman lived from 1884 until his death. The house was a short walk from the railroad’s terminus on the Camden waterfront.


The legacy of these pioneering railroads lives on today. Both the Camden and Amboy and the Camden and Atlantic paths are still in use. The Camden and Amboy is now New Jersey Transit’s River Line, which opened in 1999. The River Line follows the exact Camden and Amboy path from just outside Camden to Trenton. Much of the route looks the same as it did in Whitman’s time, especially the scenic section between Bordentown and Trenton, where the line passes through Hamilton marsh. The Camden and Atlantic Railroad is now New Jersey Transit’s Atlantic City Line, which shares portions of its right of way with the PATCO High Speed Line and Amtrak.

Works Cited

Lorett, Treese. Railroads of New Jersey: Fragments of the Past in the Garden State

Landscape. Mechanicsburg, Penn: Stackpole Books, 2006. Google Books.

Web. 15 Oct. 2009.

Nye, David E. America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New

Beginnings. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003. Google Books. Web. 15 Oct.


Whitman, Walt. Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America College Editions 1996.


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Thursday, October 15th, 2009 | Author:

As a Civil War nerd, I found Whitman’s war memoranda very informative and enjoyable.  His account of soldiers returning after the Battle of Bull Run shows a side of the war I didn’t know–that there was widespread doubt among Union soldiers about their ability to win.

The contrast between Whitman’s poetry and prose is striking. Is seems Whitman was bipolar. Gone is the sensuous, grandiose poetic language; Whitman’s prose is straightforward and conventional. Reading Whitman stripped of his literary devices is like seeing an interview of an actor out of character.  In his prose, it’s about the story itself, not how it’s told. The purpose of “Specimen Days” is to relate history, not dazzle the readers.  In “Specimen Days” we have a primary source  from just behind the front lines of the Civil War, free of retrospect. What we have from Whitman the voice of a marginal character–not an officer, not a solider, not even a real nurse, but a lowly hospital assistant. Whitman’s sensitivity and humanity come through in interactions with sick and dying soldiers. Surprisingly, he deals with death and dying quite matter-of-factly, not something you’d expect from a romantic poet. In this excerpt from “Down at the Front” he sounds more like Hemingway than the man who wrote “Song of Myself.”

Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt. (Most of these bodies were subsequently taken up and transported north to their friends.) The large mansion is quite crowded upstairs and down, everything impromptu, no system, all bad enough, but I have no doubt the best that can be done; all the wounds pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and bloody. Some of the wounded are rebel soldiers and officers, prisoners. One, a Mississippian, a captain, hit badly in leg, I talk’d with some time; he ask’d me for papers, which I gave him. (I saw him three months afterward in Washington, with his leg amputated, doing well.) I went through the rooms, downstairs and up. Some of the men were dying. I had nothing to give at that visit, but wrote a few letters to folks home, mothers.

Another revealing passage is his account of Abraham Lincoln on p. 736. We have come to think of Lincoln, and the presidency in general, as something far removed from the daily life of citizens. Who would’ve guessed that an ordinary man like Whitman could follow the daily comings and goings of the president as if he were just a neighbor? Whitman could get close enough to the president to see the “deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows and very cordial ones.”  Imagine a regular citizen having such casual rapport with a president today. Today, the closest a ordinary person can get to the president is to peek through the gates on Pennsylvania avenue and watch the snipers on the roof of the White House. Or maybe the glimpse of Obama’s waving hand from his motorcade. Times have changed.

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Thursday, October 08th, 2009 | Author:

In “Memories of President Lincoln”, Whitman eulogizes the fallen president and writes his most mainstream poem “O Captain! My Captain!”, an simple extended metaphor in the which the ship is the nation, and Lincoln is the fallen captain.

At last, Whitman rhymes! And not surprisingly, he shows effortless mastery of rhyme. This is the most conventional Whitman poem I’ve come across.  Here Whitman is truly the poet of democracy, because ordinary people can understand and appreciate this poem–and they did.  It was the only poem that was put in an anthology during Whitman’s lifetime, his hit single. For the average American, this is likely the only exposure they’ll ever have to Whitman. Who can forget the melodramatic closing scene of Dead Poets Society when the first boy stands on his desk and says “O Captain! My Capitan” ?

In “O Captain! My Capitan!” we hear a new poetic voice. Whitman has put himself and his experimental voice aside. I don’t feel the exalted universal “I” in this poem. The focus in this poem is on “my”. Whitman is humble, focusing on his role as the captain’s subject and as a son.

Each stanza is 8 lines, (4 long followed by 4 short) and begins with a reference to the captain and ends with “fallen cold and dead”.  The sixth and eighth lines always rhyme, bringing drama emphasis to “dead” the final word of each stanza.

In the first four lines of each staza, the rhyme scheme varies. In stanza 1, the first two lines rhyme (“done” and “won”), the stanza 2, there is no rhyme in the first four lines. In stanza 3, line 1 and 2 rhyme (still and will) along with 3 and 4 (done and won), a recapitulation of the rhymes found in the first two lines of the poem. This makes the poem catchier and easier to memorize than his free verse works.

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths – for you the shores
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

According to Reynolds, Whitman was embarrassed by the poem and its regular meter and melodrama. Horace Traubel recorded Whitman as saying, “I’m honest when I say damn My Captain and all the Captains in the book.” But Whitman recited the poem often during his popular Lincoln lecture series in the 1870s. It’s not uncommon for great artists to despise their most popular works.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. print

Whitman, Walt. O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996. p.621. pint

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Wednesday, October 07th, 2009 | Author:

While walking to the Whitman house last week, I was struck by how different Camden must have looked during Whitman’s time. Today’s central Camden would be unrecognizable to someone living there  in the 19th century.

From Whitman’s time until the 1960s, Mickle Street was a narrow tree-lined street with row houses on both sides. Running parallel to the north were the tracks of the Pennsylvania railroad. A few blocks to the west, the tracks ended at the Delaware River, where a ferry ran to Market Street in Philadelphia. This had to have been a bustling, noisy place in late 19th century at least while the trains and ferries were running. Whitman’s bedroom was not more than 60 feet from the train tracks.


Mickle Street was widened to six lanes in the 1960s. To make room for the expansion, all of the houses on the north side of the street were demolished along with the railroad tracks. It was renamed renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard in the 1990s. A forgotten section by the river is still called Mickle Street.


Camden was a booming industrial city in Whitman’s time, but it has never been glamorous. The 20th century  brought dramatic decline to Camden. Today Mickle Street (many people still call it by its old name) is a street of empty lots covered in weeds and trash, with the occasional boarded up, half burnt-out brownstone awaiting demolition. There is little traffic on this six lane street.  Only three or four 19th century structures remain.


What would Whitman think of Camden today? He was a complicated man of contradictions so I can’t say. But if he were living in that house today, Whitman would have new neighbors: a prison (that he could see from his bedroom window), a center dedicated to himself (I can safely say he would have loved that), and a Campbell’s Soup factory that I mistook for a prison. He would be living in one of the poorest and most violent cities (per capita) in the United States. His middle class neighbors would have fled long ago to the suburbs. His fancy friends from Philadelphia might think twice before coming to Camden. Whitman’s Camden is long gone. It’s a miracle the house is even standing while its neighborhood has all but vanished. Hopefully the 21st century will be better for Camden.

image source:

Fahim, Kareem. “An inside look at violence in Camden” The New York Times 9 Feb 2008: web



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Thursday, October 01st, 2009 | Author:

In “Children of Adam” Whitman celebrates sexuality and the human body in an androgynous way. This is Whitman at his most revolutionary and daring. The writing is sexually explicit, even by today’s standards. Unlike Penthouse Letters, sex in this poem is generalized, it’s not episodic or designed to stimulate the reader. I admire his courage. He and his publisher took an incredible risk.

Today we are so quick to neatly categorize sexuality, whereas Whitman celebrates a kind of androgynous omnisexuality that knows no barriers.

Whitman seems obsessed with the physical aspects of sex and not with love and stable, monogamous relationships.  He doesn’t really mention love in connection to sex. It’s all very impersonal. He is also obsessed with the male orgasm (not with the female–some things never change).

You can hear the same sentiment Serge Gainsbourg’s controversial hit from 1969 “J’taime moi non plus” (I love you, me neither).  I can’t think of any other popular song that celebrates sexuality in the spirit of “Children of Adam.” This song features the singing (and moaning) of Jane Birkin. It was banned by the Vatican and several European governments for obvious reasons. No French necessary.