Posts Tagged New Jersey
During his stay in Camden NJ, Walt Whitman lived at the house on 330 Mickle Street. It was when Louisa Whitman, his mother, grew ill. Walt soon visited her, but she tragically died only three days after he came to Camden. After a brief return to D.C. he would move to Camden to live with his brother George.
Long before Walt Whitman came to Camden, the history of Mickle Street began. In the early 1840’s John W. Mickle had enough pull with the railroad companies and the city of Camden itself that he was able to have a street named after him. This street would soon be located next to elevated railroad tracks which were noisy and would shake the houses as they passed. On this road was a lot owned by Edward sharp since the 1820’s. This would be the spot of the future home of Walt Whitman. Walt acquired the building from Rebbecca Jane Hare in the early 1870’s. Ms. Hare had come in to possession of the house after the original owner, Adam Hare passed away in the early 1870’s.
Up until Walt Whitman was in his mid sixties, he had never owned a house. Instead he would move from area to area, but always paying rent, and never purchasing land outright. That all changed in the spring of 1884. Walt Whitman purchased 330 Mickle Street, a that grew to mimic Whitman’s own laissez-faire outlook of unkempt charm.
Already 50 years old, the little shack, purchased for $1,250 in 1884 (worth $28,288.55 in 2009 money according to the Consumer Price Index), was deemed a mistake by George. He had felt that Walt had overpaid for a run down shack missing various utilities and had fallen in to disrepair.
Despite the house’s shortcomings, Walt had grown to love it. He would live here from 1884 until his death in 1892. During which time he wrote November Boughs amongst other works including (another) edition of Leaves of Grass.
After his death, the house passed to his brother Edward (whom, unlike George, didn’t totally hate the house), with the one stipulation that Walt’s housekeeper was allowed to live there (paying rent of course). She would continue to do so until Edward soon died and the house moved under the possession of George. George (whom, just to recap, hated the house) kicked our the housekeeper over a petty squabble but would hold on to his brother’s old house until he passed away as well. Jessie Whitman (George, Ed, and Walt’s niece) would later sell the house to the city of Camden almost thirty years after Walt’s death.
After this, the Walt Whitman Foundation was created to look after the estate. Lead by Walt’s former doctor, the Foundation refurbished the house including the furniture, such as his bed and rocking chair. A little over a quarter century later, the New Jersey itself would purchase it and later have it run by the National Park Service.
During the 60’s the nearby railroad tracks were demolished and the Walt Whitman Foundation was changed to the Walt Whitman Association. The neighboring buildings were renovated into libraries and the entire group was turned into a museum.
After the train tracks were taken down, the road was widened and graduated from “street” to “boulevard”. The newly named Mickle Blvd. stayed that way until a campaign in the mid 90’s had a portion of the road changed to Martin Luther Kind Boulevard. The road remains named that today, though the section surrounding Walt Whitman’s house is still referred to as Mickle Street (and can still be searched as such on Google Maps, so hey, if its good enough for Google, its good enough for me).
Going to Rutgers Camden and being located so close to Mickle Street, I went to have a visit. It was after I had gotten off of work, but before it was to late to be safe wandering around Camden (I hate to say that, but yeah). Unfortunately I couldn’t get there on time to get in, (and too dark to take decent photos myself) but I had enough time to wander around and get the feel for what it must have been like for Whitman.
Of course things have changed, if you go there, you can still make out where the train tracks must have been, following the road, causing a ruckus in the old house as the trains passed by Whitman.
Crime (like everywhere else in Camden) has gone up as well. In my research I have discovered that this road was once the head quarters for a major drug dealing ring, as well as the site of at least one murder at a corner Chinese food restaurant.
One has to wonder, what Walt Whitman would have to say about all of this. Surely he would denounce the riots and gangs and drugs that have swept over the area in the past few decades. He would lament the death of Camden’s natural beauty in favor of factories and soup cans and Victrolas. But would he have left?
He enjoyed the house in the first place because it was run down and busted up. Would it make that much of a difference if the city followed suit? As society fell apart alongside his home would he have even noticed? Would he have worried? It’s easy for me to see him as just a stubborn old man who would probably be to much of a hassle for gangs to be bothered with.
Perhaps his poetry as well would be reflective of this. Sure it would be bound to be different. He grew to lament the Civil War, gang warfare at his front door would probably be no different. But set in a gotham setting, in the advent of rap music and Walkmans would he embrace parts of the culture he found outside of his doorway, clamoring to get in?
Imagine a mid 90’s Whitman, rapping his poetry, influencing another whole generation (to anyone who feels that this would be unheard of, I direct you towards the music of Tupac, MF Doom, and Aesop Rock, among others whose music is little more than awe inspiring poetry set to a beat).
Ok, MC Walt Whitman just sounds awesome.
House Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WhitmanHouse-CamdenNJ1.jpg
1981 Whitman Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/Whitman_by_Reeder_1891.jpg