The Walt Whitman House is a historical home and museum in Camden, New Jersey. The house was occupied by the famous poet Walt Whitman during the final years of his life, from 1884-1892; it was the only home he ever owned. Whitman is considered one of the greatest American poets of the nineteenth century, and is most notable for his work Leaves of Grass. In the years following his death many efforts were made to preserve the house as a monument to Whitman. The Walt Whitman Association was instrumental in purchasing and preserving the home, as well as gather Whitman’s personal possessions to furnish it. The house has since been restored to match its exact appearance when Walt Whitman lived in it. Today the home is operated as a museum by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, and is open to the public for guided tours. It has been designated a New Jersey State Historic Site and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Walt Whitman was born
in 1819 and grew up in New York. He became an avid fan of literature early in
his life and worked variously as a printer, a teacher, and a newspaper editor.
In 1855 Whitman self-published his first collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, which received a
favorable review from popular writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Over the next several
decades he published a slew of poetry, and expanded his original book Leaves of Grass multiple times. Despite
his success and reputation, Whitman made little money from royalties and often
faced financial hardships; he would sometime rely on donations from friends and
admirers. In the 1870s he moved to Camden, New Jersey in what was meant to be a
temporary stay while he helped tend to his dying mother. A stroke in 1873
impacted his health and he spent the next several years living in Camden with
his brother George. Around 1884 George moved to Burlington, New Jersey. Whitman
decided not to follow him, and instead purchased a home of his own on Mickle
Street (today Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) for $1,750. It was the first
and only house that Whitman ever owned.
The two-story, Greek
revival style, wood-frame house was built in 1848. Featuring six rooms and a
backyard, it was a typical example of a middle-class Victorian era home.
Whitman lived here for the final eight years of his life. Faced with declining
health, he hired a local widow, Mary O. Davis, to move in to the house and care
for him. Although Whitman’s most productive writing years were behind him, he
did manage to complete and publish the final edition of Leaves of Grass in
1892. He died that same year from tuberculosis on March 26, 1892.
Almost immediately after
Whitman’s death, friends and fans of his work saw the need to memorialize the
poet. In 1894 the Walt Whitman Fellowship (today the Walt Whitman Association)
was created to promote his works and to hold an annual celebration on his
birthday, May 31. In 1921 the City of Camden purchased the home from Whitman’s
heirs, and the Walt Whitman Association oversaw its restoration. They worked to
acquire many of his possessions and items original to the house to furnish it
with. The Walt Whitman House was opened to the public as a museum in 1923. In
1947 Camden transferred ownership of the house to the State of New Jersey,
which designated it a state historic site. In 1966 the house was listed on the
National Register of Historic Places. During the 1980s and 1990s the New Jersey
Division of Parks and Forestry conducted research and performed extensive
renovations on the house, repairing or replacing aging infrastructure and
restoring the house to its exact appearance during the time Whitman lived
there. The projects were funded by money from various state agencies and
historical organizations such as the New Jersey Historic Preservation Bond
Program, the New Jersey Historic Trust, the Division of Parks and Forestry, the
Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia, and the Victorian Society of America. Final
restorations were completed in 1998.
Today the Walt Whitman
remains open to the public as a museum and is maintained and operated jointly
by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry and the Walt Whitman
Association. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of Whitman and promoting the
art of poetry. Items in the museum include some of Whitman’s original
furniture, his deathbed, and his earliest-known photograph (from 1848). In
addition to guided tours, the museum also hosts field trips and an annual
poetry contest. The Walt Whitman Association has held a birthday celebration in
the backyard every year since 1892.