“I celebrate myself, and I sing myself,” Walt Whitman declared in Song of Myself, one of his earliest poems. Camden is taking that sentiment to heart with a celebration of the legendary poet’s 200th birthday on May 31.
“Camden gave Whitman an environment where he could reflect on the world,” says Leo Blake, curator of the Walt Whitman House, a National Historic Landmark. Born on Long Island, Whitman moved to Camden in 1873 at the age of 53, staying with his brother, George. He purchased his house at 328 Mickle Boulevard (now 328 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) in 1884 for $1,750. During his Camden years, Whitman published Specimen Days, a collection of essays that includes his observations about the Civil War, and updated his most famous collection, Leaves of Grass, three times.
Whitman also found time to explore South Jersey. Two of his poems—Patrolling Barnegat and With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea!—were inspired by visits to the Jersey Shore. He made a day trip to Atlantic City by train in January 1879. A horse-and-carriage ride on the beach left him marveling at “the uninterrupted space, shore, salt atmosphere [and] sky.”
The poet’s impact was international. Irish authors Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker visited him in Camden. Wilde, then 27, met with Whitman in January 1882, and the two discussed their craft over homemade elderberry wine. Wilde was unrestrained in his praise of Whitman. “Of all your authors, I consider Walt Whitman the grandest and noblest,” he told the Boston Herald.
The Camden celebration includes legacy tours of the Whitman house from May 22–June 8, and “Democratic Vistas: Whitman, Body and Soul,” an exhibit of photos, paintings, glassworks and sculptures that runs May 30–December 7 in the Stedman Gallery on the Rutgers-Camden campus. For a complete list of events, visit whitmanat200.org/calendar.