Off the top of my head I know very little about Walt Whitman, though probably more than most Americans: I know that I recently heard the poet Rita Dove speak of Whitman's compassion when he was a nurse during the Civil War. I know that Whitman spent some time in Washington, D.C., because I was raised here and it's one of those things you learn in junior high school.
Most of all, I know that when I was hiking in the Shenandoah mountains last summer as part of an Iron-Johnish bachelor party to celebrate the coming marriage of a good friend, the high point for me was standing in a tiny creek, my pant legs rolled up, with a canteen full of white wine in one hand and a copy of "Leaves of Grass" in the other. We were taking turns reading aloud, and when my turn came, I recited Whitman's poem "A Woman Waits for Me," my voice bellowing out into the valley and skimming the sky:
Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself,
In you I wrap a thousand onward years,
On you I graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and America.
My feet feeling wonderfully frigid in the creek and my brow dotted with sweat, I remember thinking that Whitman was a powerful, eloquent voice with which I was far too unfamiliar.
That said, it may seem curious (or not) that I am sitting in a two-door Honda Civic without air conditioning in the heat of July, on my way to Camden, N.J., on a sort of house-cleaning pilgrimage to the crypt of the great American poet. An old friend who maintains a boundless passion for Whitman's work had recently passed through Camden and decided to visit the poet's tomb. What he discovered shocked him. The tomb -- as immense, towering and impressive as a long Whitman poem -- was surrounded with mounds of decaying leaves, with standing water an inch deep in the crypt itself. The area was littered with trash and there was a general air of abandonment and neglect.
The following day, Neil called the cemetery officials and asked if he could tend to the crypt and the area surrounding it. The next thing I knew we were on the road to Camden toting garden gloves, a rake and any other tools we could scrape together.
It seems to be common knowledge among Whitmaniacs (the term, like Deadheads and Parrotheads, was coined by the poet's fans) that Whitman was obsessed with planning and overseeing the execution of his final resting place. He designed it after the walls of King Solomon's temple. His efforts paid off: The crypt is impressive, commanding and gorgeous. It stands 15 feet tall, 15 feet wide and 20 feet deep, and is supported by more than 72 tons of granite. More than five tons of marble make up catacombs that house Whitman, his parents, two brothers, a sister and a sister-in-law.
The cost of the crypt was $4,000 -- not an insubstantial amount, considering Whitman's house in Camden was worth $1,750. On the day of the poet's funeral in March 1892, his body was taken by carriage two miles from his home at 328 Mickle Blvd. to Harleigh Cemetery, where 4,000 people gathered for a jubilant celebration of his life.
The abandoned building across from Harleigh Cemetery seems to represent most of Camden: cement, quiet and somewhat desolate. However, the cemetery -- by Camden standards -- is tempting.
At first glance, Harleigh -- oddly enough, seeing that it's a cemetery -- is surprisingly alive. The grass, although uneven, is green, and many of the trees are full and robust. Two birch trees near Whitman's crypt provide ample shade from the sun as Neil and I begin our work under a summer-blue sky.
Our initial impression of beauty is soon erased by the sheer abundance of the trash surrounding Whitman's crypt. As I pick up the debris and place it in an old shopping bag, I realize that in addition to being a cemetery, Harleigh serves as a summer barbecue and picnic spot for Camdenites. We spend nearly an hour becoming acquainted with their leftovers, including empty beer bottles, plastic soda bottles and Slurpee cups. I learn that MontClair 100's are the smoke of choice for South Jersey cemetery visitors, Lay's BBQ the preferred potato chip, Big Gulps the favorite drink.
After cleaning up the litter, we face more challenging tasks. We can't do anything about the standing water, as it's behind a locked iron gate that leads to the inside of the crypt. But we can rake the mounds of leaves from a 35-foot area, and replace the rocks that have tumbled from the two walls leading up to the crypt. We move thoroughly through each task, Neil focusing on replacing the slipped rocks, and I on raking the mountains of moist, decaying leaves. Finally -- for a Zenlike aesthetic -- we take a rake and carefully groom the dirt paths, giving them a presentable and cared-for appearance. Settling back under the birch trees with some bottled water, we bask in the completion of our tasks. Total work time: three hours.
Before we leave the cemetery, we drop by the office, where two staffers, Carolyn and Lisa, sit behind thick glass that has a round hole through it so people can talk to them, and vice versa. The office is stale, cool and quiet. Stepping up to the glass makes me feel as if I'm at a bank. I ask Carolyn if the cemetery has any literature on Whitman and his crypt. The answer is no, but she says that the Whitman House may be able to provide something.
Walt Whitman lived at 328 Mickle Blvd. for the final eight years of his life, and died there in the master bedroom. The house is near the water, and Whitman was apparently fond of walking to the banks of the Delaware River, often taking a ferry to Philadelphia.
Mickle Boulevard is a wide thoroughfare. Across the street from the house there's a county prison; I'm imagining that Whitman's view across Mickle Boulevard was more pleasant.
The Greek Revival-style row house, built about 1845, contains many of the original furnishings (including the bed the poet died in) and photographs detailing his life. The house is in for some changes, though: A six-month restoration beginning in October will repair exterior structural damage and return the interior to its appearance in Whitman's day.
On arriving home from our day-long excursion to Camden, I'm taken aback by the number of eyes that roll when I mention what I did that day, the typical response being one of surprise and disapproval. Few people thought our effort had been worthwhile.
Today, though, I know a little more about Walt Whitman. In his last years, the poet (his crypt being the ideal evidence) was compelled by the uncertainties of death and the possibilities of everlasting appeal. Amid the desolation of Camden and the trash, rotting leaves, unkempt paths and mosquito-ridden crypt at Harleigh Cemetery, Whitman's tomb is somehow alive with the spirit of a proud poetic figure. His struggle to erect a crypt that is difficult to overlook was successful. Nonetheless, only his readers can keep him alive.
As the plaque in front of the tomb says:
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Harleigh Cemetery (1640 Haddon Ave., Camden, N.J. 08103, 609-963-0122) is about a 135-mile drive from Washington, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Take I-95 north to I-295 north to I-676 north; exit at Route 130 north. Take Route 130 to Haddon Avenue. Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Walt Whitman House (328 Mickle Blvd., 609-964-5383) is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. Free admission. Call ahead to be sure the house is open. The house will be closed during its restoration, set to be completed by May 1.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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