Walt Whitman House - History

History

In 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke and in May the same year, his mother Louisa Whitman died; both events left him depressed. Louisa was in Camden, New Jersey at the time and Whitman arrived three days before her death. He returned to Washington, D. C., where he had been living, only briefly before returning to Camden to live with his brother George, paying room and board. The brothers lived on Stevens Street and Walt lived there for the next eleven years. Whitman spent the Christmas of 1883 with friends in Germantown, Pennsylvania while his brother was building a farmhouse in Burlington, New Jersey that included accommodations for the poet. Instead of moving with his brother, however, Whitman purchased the Mickle Street House in Camden in the spring of 1884. He was 65, and it was the first home he owned. Whitman called it his "shanty" or "coop", emphasizing its shabbiness. His brother George did not approve of the purchase and the decision strained their relationship. Others questioned Whitman's judgment as well. A friend called it "the worst house and the worst situated". Another friend noted it "was the last place one would expect a poet to select for a home."

The lot on which the home was standing was purchased in 1847 by a clerk named Adam Hare for $350. It was likely Hare who built the house. By the time Whitman bought it, it was a two-story row house with six rooms and no furnace. Its recent occupant was Alfred Lay, the grandfather of a young friend of Whitman. When Lay couldn't pay the rent for March, Whitman loaned him the $16 he needed. Whitman soon after purchased the home for $1,750, which he earned from recent sales of a recent edition of Leaves of Grass and through a loan from publisher George William Childs. Lay continued to live there with his wife, cooking to cover part of their rent and paying $2 a week; the Lays moved out on January 20, 1885. Whitman later invited Mary Davis, a sailor's widow living a few blocks away, to serve as his housekeeper in exchange for free rent in the house. She moved in February 24, 1885, bringing with her a cat, a dog, two turtledoves, a canary, and other assorted animals.

While living in the home, Whitman completed several poems, many focused on public events. One was a sonnet published in the February 22, 1885, issue of the Philadelphia Press called "Ah, Not This Granite Dead and Cold" which commemorated the completion of the Washington Monument. Some of Whitman's writing was done in his bedroom, which visitors noted was similar to a newspaper office, piled with stacks of paper. During his years in the house, however, Whitman only earned an estimated $1,300, of which only $20 came from royalties from Leaves of Grass and about $350 came from new works. The majority of his earnings were donations from admirers and well-wishers.

Whitman's health had been failing since before he moved into the home and he began making preparations for his death. For $4,000, he commissioned a granite house-shaped mausoleum which he visited often during its construction. In the last week of his life, too weak to lift a knife or fork, he wrote: "I suffer all the time: I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony — monotony — monotony — in pain." He spent his last years preparing a final edition of Leaves of Grass. At the end of 1891, he wrote to a friend: "L. of G. at last complete—after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old". In January 1892, an announcement was published in the New York Herald in which Whitman asked that "this new 1892 edition... absolutely supersede all previous ones. Faulty as it is, he decides it as by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance." The final edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1892 and is referred to as the "deathbed edition".

Whitman died at 6:43 p.m. on March 26, 1892, a few days before his 73rd birthday. His autopsy was performed at the home and revealed that the left lung had collapsed and the right was at one-eighth its breathing capacity. A public viewing of Whitman's body was also held at the Camden home; over one thousand people visited in three hours. In his final years, Whitman had noted his appreciation for the house and for Camden. He wrote, "Camden was originally an accident—but I shall never be sorry. I was left over in Camden. It has brought me blessed returns."

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