Walt Whitman Miniatures by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayIA decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that one should have some excuse for being away from the office on a working afternoon. September s …

Story type: Essay

I

A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that one should have some excuse for being away from the office on a working afternoon. September sunshine and trembling blue air are not sufficient reasons, it seems. Therefore, if any one should brutally ask what I was doing the other day dangling down Chestnut Street toward the river, I should have to reply, “Looking for the Wenonah.” The Wenonah, you will immediately conclude, is a moving picture theater. But be patient a moment.

Lower Chestnut Street is a delightful place for one who does not get down there very often. The face of wholesale trade, dingier than the glitter of uptown shops, is far more exciting and romantic. Pavements are cumbered with vast packing cases; whiffs of tea and spice well up from cool cellars. Below Second Street I found a row of enormous sacks across the curb, with bright red and green wool pushing through holes in the burlap. Such signs as WOOL, NOILS AND WASTE are frequent. I wonder what noils are? A big sign on Front Street proclaims TEA CADDIES, which has a pleasant grandmotherly flavor. A little brass plate, gleamingly polished, says HONORARY CONSULATE OF JAPAN. Beside immense motor trucks stood a shabby little horse and buggy, restored to service, perhaps, by the war-time shortage of gasoline. It was a typical one-horse shay of thirty years ago.

I crossed over to Camden on the ferryboat Wildwood, observing in the course of the voyage her sisters, Bridgeton, Camden, Salem and Hammonton. It is curious that no matter where one goes, one will always meet people who are traveling there for the first time. A small boy next to me was gazing in awe at the stalwart tower of the Victor Company, and snuffing with pleasure the fragrance of cooking tomatoes that makes Camden savory at this time of year. Wagonloads of ripe Jersey tomatoes making their way to the soup factory are a jocund sight across the river just now.

Every ferry passenger is familiar with the rapid tinkling of the ratchet wheel that warps the landing stage up to the level of the boat’s deck. I asked the man who was running the wheel where I would find the Wenonah. “She lays over in the old Market Street slip,” he replied, and cheerfully showed me just where to find her. “Is she still used?” I asked. “Mostly on Saturday nights and holidays,” he said, “when there’s a big crowd going across.”

The Wenonah, as all Camden seafarers know, is a ferryboat, one of the old-timers, and I was interested in her because she and her sister, the Beverly, were Walt Whitman’s favorite ferries. He crossed back and forth on them hundreds of times and has celebrated them in several paragraphs in Specimen Days. Perhaps this is the place to quote his memorandum dated January 12, 1882, which ought to interest all lovers of the Camden ferry:

“Such a show as the Delaware presented an hour before sundown yesterday evening, all along between Philadelphia and Camden, is worth weaving into an item. It was full tide, a fair breeze from the southwest, the water of a pale tawny color, and just enough motion to make things frolicsome and lively. Add to these an approaching sunset of unusual splendor, a broad tumble of clouds, with much golden haze and profusion of beaming shaft and dazzle. In the midst of all, in the clear drab of the afternoon light, there steamed up the river the large new boat, the Wenonah, as pretty an object as you could wish to see, lightly and swiftly skimming along, all trim and white, covered with flags, transparent red and blue streaming out in the breeze. Only a new ferryboat, and yet in its fitness comparable with the prettiest product of Nature’s cunning, and rivaling it. High up in the transparent ether gracefully balanced and circled four or five great sea hawks, while here below, mid the pomp and picturesqueness of sky and river, swam this creature of artificial beauty and motion and power, in its way no less perfect.”

You will notice that Walt Whitman describes the Wenonah as being white. The Pennsylvania ferryboats, as we know them, are all the brick-red color that is familiar to the present generation. Perhaps older navigators of the Camden crossing can tell us whether the boats were all painted white in a less smoky era?

The Wenonah and the Beverly were lying in the now unused ferry slip at the foot of Market Street, alongside the great Victor Talking Machine works. Picking my way through an empty yard where some carpentering was going on, I found a deserted pier that overlooked the two old vessels and gave a fair prospect on to the river and the profile of Philadelphia. Sitting there on a pile of pebbles, I lit a pipe and watched the busy panorama of the river. I made no effort to disturb the normal and congenial lassitude that is the highest function of the human being: no Hindoo philosopher could have been more pleasantly at ease. (O. Henry, one remembers, used to insist that what some of his friends called laziness was really “dignified repose.”) Two elderly colored men were loading gravel onto a cart not far away. I was a little worried as to what I could say if they asked what I was doing. In these days casual loungers along docksides may be suspected of depth bombs and high treason. The only truthful reply to any question would have been that I was thinking about Walt Whitman. Such a remark, if uttered in Philadelphia, would undoubtedly have been answered by a direction to the chocolate factory on Race Street. But in Camden every one knows about Walt. Still, the colored men said nothing beyond returning my greeting. Their race, wise in simplicity, knows that loafing needs no explanation and is its own excuse.

If Walt could revisit the ferries he loved so well, in New York and Philadelphia, he would find the former strangely altered in aspect. The New York skyline wears a very different silhouette against the sky, with its marvelous peaks and summits drawing the eye aloft. But Philadelphia’s profile is (I imagine) not much changed. I do not know just when the City Hall tower was finished: Walt speaks of it as “three-fifths built” in 1879. That, of course, is the dominant unit in the view from Camden. Otherwise there are few outstanding elements. The gradual rise in height of the buildings, from Front Street gently ascending up to Broad, gives no startling contrast of elevation to catch the gaze. The spires of the older churches stand up like soft blue pencils, and the massive cornices of the Curtis and Drexel buildings catch the sunlight. Otherwise the outline is even and well-massed in a smooth ascending curve.

It is curious how a man can stamp his personality upon earthly things. There will always be pilgrims to whom Camden and the Delaware ferries are full of excitement and meaning because of Walt Whitman. Just as Stratford is Shakespeare, so is Camden Whitman. Some supercilious observers, flashing through on the way to Atlantic City, may only see a town in which there is no delirious and seizing beauty. Let us remind them of Walt’s own words:

A great city is that which has the greatest men and women,
If it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest
city in the whole world.

And as I came back across the river, and an airplane hovered over us at a great height, I thought how much we need a Whitman to-day, a poet who can catch the heart and meaning of these grievous bitter years, who can make plain the surging hopes that throb in the breasts of men. The world has not flung itself into agony without some unexpressed vision that lights the sacrifice. If Walt Whitman were here he would look on this new world of moving pictures and gasoline engines and U-boats and tell us what it means. His great heart, which with all its garrulous fumbling had caught the deep music of human service and fellowship, would have had true and fine words for us. And yet he would have found it a hard world for one of his strolling meditative observancy. A speeding motor truck would have run him down long ago!

As I left the ferry at Market Street I saw that the Norwegian steamer Taunton was unloading bananas at the Ericsson pier. Less than a month ago she picked up the survivors of the schooner Madrugada, torpedoed by a U-boat off Winter Bottom Shoal. On the Madrugada was a young friend of mine, a Dutch sailor, who told me of the disaster after he was landed in New York. To come unexpectedly on the ship that had rescued him seemed a great adventure. What a poem Walt Whitman could have made of it!

II

It is a weakness of mine–not a sinful one, I hope–that whenever I see any one reading a book in public I am agog to find out what it is. Crossing over to Camden this morning a young woman on the ferry was absorbed in a volume, and I couldn’t resist peeping over her shoulder. It was “Hans Brinker.” On the same boat were several schoolboys carrying copies of Myers’ “History of Greece.” Quaint, isn’t it, how our schools keep up the same old bunk! What earthly use will a smattering of Greek history be to those boys? Surely to our citizens of the coming generation the battles of the Marne will be more important than the scuffle at Salamis.

My errand in Camden was to visit the house on Mickle Street where Walt Whitman lived his last years. It is now occupied by Mrs. Thomas Skymer, a friendly Italian woman, and her family. Mrs. Skymer graciously allowed me to go through the downstairs rooms.

I don’t suppose any literary shrine on earth is of more humble and disregarded aspect than Mickle Street. It is a little cobbled byway, grimed with drifting smoke from the railway yards, littered with wind-blown papers and lined with small wooden and brick houses sooted almost to blackness. It is curious to think, as one walks along that bumpy brick pavement, that many pilgrims from afar have looked forward to visiting Mickle Street as one of the world’s most significant altars. As Chesterton wrote once, “We have not yet begun to get to the beginning of Whitman.” But the wayfarer of to-day will find Mickle Street far from impressive.

The little house, a two-story frame cottage, painted dark brown, is numbered 330. (In Whitman’s day it was 328.) On the pavement in front stands a white marble stepping-block with the carved initials W.W.–given to the poet, I dare say, by the same friends who bought him a horse and carriage. A small sign, in English and Italian, says: Thomas A. Skymer, Automobiles to Hire on Occasions. It was with something of a thrill that I entered the little front parlor where Walt used to sit, surrounded by his litter of papers and holding forth to faithful listeners. One may safely say that his was a happy old age, for there were those who never jibbed at protracted audience.

A description of that room as it was in the last days of Whitman’s life may not be uninteresting. I quote from the article published by the Philadelphia Press of March 27, 1892, the day after the poet’s death:

Below the windowsill a four-inch pine shelf is swung, on which rests a bottle of ink, two or three pens and a much-rubbed spectacle case.

(The shelf, I am sorry to say, is no longer there.)

The table–between which and the wall is the poet’s rocker covered with a worsted afghan, presented to him one Christmas by a bevy of college girls who admired his work–is so thickly piled with books and magazines, letters and the raffle of a literary desk that there is scarcely an inch of room upon which he may rest his paper as he writes. A volume of Shakespeare lies on top of a heaping full waste basket that was once used to bring peaches to market, and an ancient copy of Worcester’s Dictionary shares places in an adjacent chair with the poet’s old and familiar soft gray hat, a newly darned blue woolen sock and a shoe-blacking brush. There is a paste bottle and brush on the table and a pair of scissors, much used by the poet, who writes, for the most part, on small bits of paper and parts of old envelopes and pastes them together in patchwork fashion.

In spite of a careful examination, I could find nothing in the parlor at all reminiscent of Whitman’s tenancy, except the hole for the stovepipe under the mantel. One of Mrs. Skymer’s small boys told me that “He” died in that room. Evidently small Louis Skymer didn’t in the least know who “He” was, but realized that his home was in some vague way connected with a mysterious person whose memory occasionally attracts inquirers to the house.

Behind the parlor is a dark little bedroom, and then the kitchen. In a corner of the back yard is a curious thing: a large stone or terra cotta bust of a bearded man, very much like Whitman himself, but the face is battered and the nose broken so it would be hard to assert this definitely. One of the boys told me that it was in the yard when they moved in a year or so ago. The house is a little dark, standing between two taller brick neighbors. At the head of the stairs I noticed a window with colored panes, which lets in spots of red, blue and yellow light. I imagine that this patch of vivid color was a keen satisfaction to Walt’s acute senses. Such is the simple cottage that one associates with America’s literary declaration of independence.

The other Whitman shrine in Camden is the tomb in Harleigh Cemetery, reached by the Haddonfield trolley. Doctor Oberholtzer, in his “Literary History of Philadelphia,” calls it “tawdry,” to which I fear I must demur. Built into a quiet hillside in that beautiful cemetery, of enormous slabs of rough-hewn granite with a vast stone door standing symbolically ajar, it seemed to me grotesque, but greatly impressive. It is a weird pagan cromlech, with a huge triangular boulder above the door bearing only the words WALT WHITMAN. Palms and rubber plants grow in pots on the little curved path leading up to the tomb; above it is an uncombed hillside and trees flickering in the air. At this tomb, designed (it is said) by Whitman himself, was held that remarkable funeral ceremony on March 30, 1892, when a circus tent was not large enough to roof the crowd, and peanut venders did business on the outskirts of the gathering. Perhaps it is not amiss to recall what Bob Ingersoll said on that occasion:

“He walked among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious dignity of an antique god. He was the poet of that divine democracy that gives equal rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great American voice.”

And though one finds in the words of the naive Ingersoll the squeaking timber of the soapbox, yet even a soapbox does lift a man a few inches above the level of the clay.

Well, the Whitman battle is not over yet, nor ever will be. Though neither Philadelphia nor Camden has recognized 330 Mickle Street as one of the authentic shrines of our history (Lord, how trimly dight it would be if it were in New England!), Camden has made a certain amend in putting Walt into the gay mosaic that adorns the portico of the new public library in Cooper Park. There, absurdly represented in an austere black cassock, he stands in the following frieze of great figures: Dante, Whitman, Moliere, Gutenberg, Tyndale, Washington, Penn, Columbus, Moses, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Shakespeare, Longfellow and Palestrina. I believe that there was some rumpus as to whether Walt should be included; but, anyway, there he is.

You will make a great mistake if you don’t ramble over to Camden some day and fleet the golden hours in an observant stroll. Himself the prince of loafers, Walt taught the town to loaf. When they built the new postoffice over there they put round it a ledge for philosophic lounging, one of the most delightful architectural features I have ever seen. And on Third Street, just around the corner from 330 Mickle Street, is the oddest plumber’s shop in the world. Mr. George F. Hammond, a Civil War veteran, who knew Whitman and also Lincoln, came to Camden in ’69. In 1888 he determined to build a shop that would be different from anything on earth, and well he succeeded. Perhaps it is symbolic of the shy and harassed soul of the plumber, fleeing from the unreasonable demands of his customers, for it is a kind of Gothic fortress. Leaded windows, gargoyles, masculine medusa heads, a sallyport, loopholes and a little spire. I stopped in to talk to Mr. Hammond, and he greeted me graciously. He says that people have come all the way from California to see his shop, and I can believe it. It is the work of a delightful and original spirit who does not care to live in a demure hutch like all the rest of us, and has really had some fun out of his whimsical little castle. He says he would rather live in Camden than in Philadelphia, and I daresay he’s right.

III

Something in his aspect as he leaned over the railing near me drew me on to speak to him. I don’t know just how to describe it except by saying that he had an understanding look. He gave me the impression of a man who had spent his life in thinking and would understand me, whatever I might say. He looked like the kind of man to whom one would find one’s self saying wise and thoughtful things. There are some people, you know, to whom it is impossible to speak wisdom even if you should wish to. No spirit of kindly philosophy speaks out of their eyes. You find yourself automatically saying peevish or futile things that you do not in the least believe.

The mood and the place were irresistible for communion. The sun was warm along the river front and my pipe was trailing a thin whiff of blue vapor out over the gently fluctuating water, which clucked and sagged along the slimy pilings. Behind us the crash and banging of heavy traffic died away into a dreamy undertone in the mild golden shimmer of the noon hour.

The old man was apparently lost in revery, looking out over the river toward Camden. He was plainly dressed in coat and trousers of some coarse weave. His shirt, partly unbuttoned under the great white sweep of his beard, was of gray flannel. His boots were those of a man much accustomed to walking. A weather-stained sombrero was on his head. Beneath it his thick white hair and whiskers wavered in the soft breeze. Just then a boy came out from the near-by ferry house carrying a big crate of daffodils, perhaps on their way from some Jersey farm to an uptown florist. We watched them shining and trembling across the street, where he loaded them onto a truck. The old gentleman’s eyes, which were a keen gray blue, caught mine as we both turned from admiring the flowers.

I don’t know just why I said it, but they were the first words that popped into my head. “And then my heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils,” I quoted.

He looked at me a little quizzically.

“You imported those words on a ship,” he said. “Why don’t you use some of your own instead?”

I was considerably taken aback. “Why, I don’t know,” I hesitated. “They just came into my head.”

“Well, I call that bad luck,” he said, “when some one else’s words come into a man’s head instead of words of his own.”

He looked about him, watching the scene with rich satisfaction. “It’s good to see all this again,” he said. “I haven’t loafed around here for going on thirty years.”

“You’ve been out of town?” I asked.

He looked at me with a steady blue eye in which there was something of humor and something of sadness.

“Yes, a long way out. I’ve just come back to see how the Great Idea is getting along. I thought maybe I could help a little.”

“The Great Idea?” I queried, puzzled.

“The value of the individual,” he said. “The necessity for every human being to be able to live, think, act, dream, pray for himself. Nowadays I believe you call it the League of Nations. It’s the same thing. Are men to be free to decide their fate for themselves or are they to be in the grasp of irresponsible tyrants, the hell of war, the cruelties of creeds, executive deeds just or unjust, the power of personality just or unjust? What are your poets, your young Libertads, doing to bring About the Great Idea of perfect and free individuals?”

I was rather at a loss, but happily he did not stay for an answer. Above us an American flag was fluttering on a staff, showing its bright ribs of scarlet clear and vivid against the sky.

“You see that flag of stars,” he said, “that thick-sprinkled bunting? I have seen that flag stagger in the agony of threatened dissolution, in years that trembled and reeled beneath us. You have only seen it in the days of its easy, sure triumphs. I tell you, now is the day for America to show herself, to prove her dreams for the race. But who is chanting the poem that comes from the soul of America, the carol of victory? Who strikes up the marches of Libertad that shall free this tortured ship of earth? Democracy is the destined conqueror, yet I see treacherous lip-smiles everywhere and death and infidelity at every step. I tell you, now is the time of battle, now the time of striving. I am he who tauntingly compels men, women, nations, crying, ‘Leap from your seats and contend for your lives!’ I tell you, produce great Persons; the rest follows.”

“What do you think about the covenant of the League of Nations?” I asked. He looked out over the river for some moments before replying and then spoke slowly, with halting utterance that seemed to suffer anguish in putting itself into words.

“America will be great only if she builds for all mankind,” he said. “This plan of the great Libertad leads the present with friendly hand toward the future. But to hold men together by paper and seal or by compulsion is no account. That only holds men together which aggregates all in a living principle, as the hold of the limbs of the body or the fibers of plants. Does this plan answer universal needs? Can it face the open fields and the seaside? Will it absorb into me as I absorb food, air, to appear again in my strength, gait, face? Have real employments contributed to it–original makers, not mere amanuenses? I think so, and therefore I say to you, now is the day to fight for it.”

“Well,” he said, checking himself, “there’s the ferry coming in. I’m going over to Camden to have a look around on my way back to Harleigh.”

“I’m afraid you’ll find Mickle street somewhat changed,” I said, for by this time I knew him.

“I love changes,” he said.

“Your centennial comes on May 31,” I said, “I hope you won’t be annoyed if Philadelphia doesn’t pay much attention to it. You know how things are around here.”

“My dear boy,” he said, “I am patient. The proof of a poet shall be sternly deferred till his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it. I have sung the songs of the Great Idea and that is reward in itself. I have loved the earth, sun, animals, I have despised riches, I have given alms to every one that asked, stood up for the stupid and crazy, devoted my income and labor to others, hated tyrants, argued not concerning God, had patience and indulgence toward the people, taken off my hat to nothing known or unknown, gone freely with powerful uneducated persons and I swear I begin to see the meaning of these things–“

“All aboard!” cried the man at the gate of the ferry house.

He waved his hand with a benign patriarchal gesture and was gone.

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