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Walt Whitman’s Grave Concern

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Photo, “grave of walt whitman” by Lisa Campeau

The tomb looked like blocks from Stonehenge had been unearthed and carved into the shape of a little house. It was crude and unadorned. Someone had placed a little flower and a pumpkin in front of the gate that sealed the tomb.

In this excerpt from the Philadelphia Press from May 16, 1890, one would never guess that the writer was describing Camden, NJ:

“It is a natural mound, beneath majestic oaks and chestnut trees, while about 200 feet below a stream of water flows over a precipice from an artificial lake. […] The boughs of the gnarled oaks are spread like arms over the hillock, and touch the greensward on the sides. Back of this piece of ground is the woods […].”

This is Camden, NJ. Yes Camden! Not just any neighborhood, but Harleigh Cemetery — more specifically, the twenty-by-thirty plot that would become the site of Walt Whitman’s tomb.

It is not just any Camden either, but the Camden of Walt Whitman.

I encounter a very different site on a recent visit to the cemetery.

Geese honk from the man-made pond. Police car sirens sound down the narrow roadway from Haddon Avenue. An ambulance wails into the receiving area of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center. The electric hum and click of a Patco High Speedline train recedes into the west toward Philadelphia. Behind the tomb, about one-hundred yards away and taking up most of the horizon, is Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center. There is also a small garage where a large yellow backhoe and a few trucks were parked.

I expected a peaceful, meditative visit to Walt Whitman’s mausoleum, but the whirling chaos of the surrounding city was hard to block out.

Why write about Whitman’s tomb? I grew up a few miles from the site and knew he was buried in Camden, but outside of a Starbucks three or four miles away in Haddonfield, I asked about a dozen people if they knew where Whitman was buried. Less than a third of the people knew. A few had a vague idea: “Around here somewhere,” one person said.” “Well he was born on Long Island, so somewhere in New York I guess,” another person said.

Whitman has a rest stop and suspension bridge named after him. What kind of legacy is that, I wondered? Shouldn’t we know the immortal resting place of the man who brought us so many immortal poems?

Perhaps my initial impression of the noisy, bustling area when compared to the excerpt from the Philadelphia Press was a bit snarky — perhaps I was looking at it all wrong. In a 2012 email correspondence with R. Osgood Dyer, of the Walt Whitman House in Camden, NJ, Dyer suggested to me that “[Whitman] wanted you to look at the whole area — ‘trees and sky’ — not just the tomb.” So I looked at the trees, carved with graffiti of “Such-and-such loves such-and-such” and “such-and-such was here.” Were these people trying to leave their immortal mark in the towering oaks? In fact, the towering monuments that adorned the hillside to my right suggest that this was a place of immortality, rather than a place of death as suggested by fleeting life in the surrounding cityscape. Was I the morbid one — was it Whitman? Was he a poet of life or a poet of death?

I would have to look back at Whitman’s legacy. From its initial publication in 1855, Whitman meticulously edited, revised and rewrote Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892. He would leave behind seven editions. With such scrupulousness, it is no wonder he would obsess over his tomb.

But why would a man who so fervently captured life in his poetry be so obsessed by something so morbid?

My research led to more questions.

I discovered that he paid more the twice the price of his house on the construction — $4000. Consider that in today’s terms — imagine paying two mortgages, one for the place where you rest nightly, and one for the place where you will rest eternally.

Whitman contracted Reinhalter and Company of Philadelphia to construct his tomb of roughhewn Quincy granite. Many articles and books cite Whitman as continually being driven out to the site in his horse and buggy to oversee the construction. Even in frail and failing health he made the sojourn from his house on Mickle Street to the cemetery.

I pictured the sick, frail man smirking behind his beard, perched in a wagon on the hillside above me. A car alarm quickly snuffed that fantasy.

Whitman wanted his granite chamber to be the “rudest most undress’d structure…since Egypt, perhaps the cave dwellers.” The granite structure is protected by a huge iron gate with some of the granite blocks weighing close to ten tons. The interior was lined with tile and white marble and had room for eight burial places.

Dyer notes the inspiration for Whitman’s design can be found in an illustration by poet William Blake. Dyer even cites Benjamin Franklin, who viewed building as an amusement for an old man. Was that all there was to the tomb and the obsession — an old man with nothing to do?

In Justin Kaplan’s biography, Walt Whitman: A Life, he quotes Whitman as saying, “My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite […] I laugh at what you call dissolution.”

Was he laughing at the finality of death — the foothold of death over life? Why so much financial and emotional investment into a grave?

Kaplan wrote that Whitman “took pride in it as a celebration of personality […] He encouraged reporters to write about the tomb, sent photographs to friends, and gave happy thought to how it would look in the years to come, reclusive and secure in its wooded hillside, half hidden among vines, shrubs, creepers and mature trees. He enjoyed his reviews […].”

As my head spun on with the city noise, I yearned for the wooded hillside of Whitman’s time.

Even Kaplan could not make sense of the poet’s pride in his death chamber. “Something more fundamental than vanity and old age led Whitman to build his tomb,” Kaplan wrote.

If he wasn’t just a bored, vain old man, then what was driving Whitman’s pleasure in securing and constructing this final resting place?

In an interview with Jesse Merandy, associate editor of the Mickle Street Review and developer of a downloadable Whitman Walking Tour in New York City, Merandy described Whitman as a lover of life, but someone who understood its finite nature. “I believe that due to this awareness he invested his poetic and life energy in creating a legacy,” Merandy said. “Part of that was in poetry; he often reached out to the ‘Poets to come’ in his work. Speaking to an audience he assumed — perhaps egotistically, or just perhaps playfully — would be there to appreciate his work in the future.”

Merandy believes that Whitman’s grave is just another thread of that legacy he was creating. I compared this legacy with immortality, something current Camden residents capture in their graffiti and street side memorials. The rest in peace murals of those gunned down in Camden seemed to blend and swirl with the past, amalgamating into a fog of memory. Was Camden a place of memory or death?

When compared to Merandy’s view, Kaplan suggests a more paranoid reason for Whitman’s choice of a fortified, pharaoh-like tomb. Kaplan cites the neglected burial grounds around which Whitman was raised. “In Brooklyn and Manhattan he saw graves of soldiers of the Revolution […] dug up to make way for shops and dwellings. […] Emanuel Swedenborg’s skull was stolen from the grave; for twenty-six years after Poe’s death his grave remained unmarked; the unburied dead of the Civil War strewed the fields and valleys of the South; in 1876, the centennial year of the Republic, Abraham Lincoln’s tomb at Springfield was violated […] two years later, the body of Alexander T. Stewart, the New York merchant prince, was stolen and held for ransom.”

Was Whitman afraid of grave robbers? Was Whitman afraid his legacy would degrade into the earth if left in a common grave? Was it ego that led him to be encased in granite? Or did the poet want to be carried into the future like his immortal poems — the tomb being the final piece of his legacy?

Whitman would go on to have his father, mother and siblings exhumed from their graves in New York and Camden and moved to his Harleigh Cemetery tomb.

I kept wondering how Whitman would view the contemporary issues of Camden — the lack of respect for life that seems to abound, the urban killing fields.

It turns out that Whitman was no stranger to death. His most famous poem in Leaves of Grass “O’ Captain! My Captain!” is in many ways an elegy to a divided nation and a gunned down president. Dyer stated that, “Crime was no stranger to Walt Whitman who would have known New York’s crime-ridden, gang-infested Five Points; the savage draft riots in New York, presidential assassination, Lizzie Borden, and Jack the Ripper. H.H. Holmes is a contemporary of Whitman as are the casual deaths of westward expansion.” Dyer alluded to a recent study of “sensationalism in crime- especially regarding the press- called Popular Crime [which] posits that the murder rate was quite a bit higher 100 plus years ago but statistics and reporting was less advanced and specific.”

Perhaps I am wrong in trying to relate Whitman’s obsession with his tomb to the tickertape of murder that most outsiders associate with Camden. I wonder if I am wrong in viewing Whitman as a poet of life as most are wrong in viewing Camden as a city of death.

I like to think that the murals of memory swirl in immortality with Whitman’s memory. I like to think of Camden as a city of the remembered, the living, and of regeneration, rather than a city of the lost.

It was a paralytic stroke that brought Whitman to spend his remaining years under the care of family and friends in Camden; but it is death that keeps him here as a part of the city, as a monument to American poetry in a city with very few monuments.

Written by

Adjunct English Professor. Freelance writer and editor. Recovered Knucklehead. Check out https://ryanlatini.wordpress.com/.

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