Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Author:
Pannapacker, William A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Known as the Quaker City and the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia should have sounded promising to Walt Whitman, an admirer of Elias Hicks and a poet of comradely affection. With over a million inhabitants in 1890, Philadelphia was the third most populous city in the United States when Whitman resided across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey, from 1873 until his death in 1892. During these years Philadelphia was an expanding industrial city that rivaled Boston as a center of culture, education, and high society. In addition to numerous libraries, lecture halls, newspapers, and publishers, Philadelphia possessed the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Pennsylvania. For nearly twenty years Whitman and his supporters used the resources of the Philadelphia-Camden area as a forum in which to promote the poet and his poetry.

Whitman's poetry had been sold through various outlets in Philadelphia since 1856, but his personal association with the city began after suffering a paralytic stroke in 1873. Nearly an invalid, Whitman moved from Washington, D.C., to Camden in June to live with his brother George and sister-in-law Louisa. Whitman knew hardly anyone in Camden or Philadelphia when he arrived, but, as he slowly recovered, he began to make acquaintances at the nearby factories and rail yards and on the ferries which regularly plied the Delaware between Camden and Philadelphia. The relationship between the two cities was reminiscent of what he had known in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and before long Whitman was visiting Philadelphia's Mercantile Library on Tenth Street, frequenting the downtown printing offices, drinking at the waterfront saloons, and befriending the streetcar conductors along Market Street. Over the next two decades Whitman continued to make friends in Philadelphia, some of them wealthy and capable of influencing public opinion, but he also continued to be regarded by many Philadelphians as the immoral author of an indecent book.

Although Whitman's self-promotional activities were international in scope, he exerted considerable effort at establishing a reputation in Philadelphia, particularly in 1876, when national attention was focused on the city. While enormous preparations were being made for Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition, Whitman prepared his Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass in two volumes. Possibly hoping for an invitation to read the opening poem of the exposition, Whitman changed After All, Not to Create Only, which he read at the opening of New York's National Industrial Exhibition in 1871, to "Song of the Exposition." In January 1876 he also published an anonymous article in the West Jersey Press exposing how he had been abused by American publishers and now lived in poverty. A pastiche of exaggerations, the article was reprinted in London and caused a press war between England and the United States which included the Philadelphia Times (24 February). Although these efforts failed to gain Whitman the opening poem of the exposition, they did gain him several influential supporters in Philadelphia. George W. Childs, publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, became a devoted patron. He offered to publish an edited version of Leaves of Grass in 1878 and loaned Whitman five hundred dollars to buy a house in 1884. An English admirer, Anne Gilchrist, moved to Philadelphia with her children in September 1876 and settled at 1929 North 22nd Street, where Whitman became a frequent overnight guest during the next three years. And John Wien Forney, owner of the Philadelphia Press, helped sponsor Whitman's trip to the American West in 1879.

In 1881 the suppression of James Osgood's edition of Leaves of Grass in Boston confirmed the belief among some Philadelphians that Whitman was indeed the victim of prudishness and comstockery. Using the plates of the Osgood edition, Rees Welsh and Company of Philadelphia risked prosecution by publishing Leaves of Grass and a companion volume, Specimen Days, in 1882. As a result of the publicity of the Boston banning, Rees Welsh sold about six thousand copies of Leaves. From 1882 until his death, most of Whitman's American publications were handled in Philadelphia by David McKay, the successor of Rees Welsh, including November Boughs and a new printing of Leaves in 1888, Good-Bye My Fancy in 1891, and the Deathbed edition of Leaves in 1891–1892. McKay also published Richard M. Bucke's adulatory biography, Walt Whitman, in 1883, and Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman in 1889.

After the Boston suppression of Leaves, new admirers from Philadelphia began to rally around Whitman. Talcott Williams, a journalist for the Philadelphia Press (1881–1912), managed to get the Boston prohibition of Leaves revoked. Robert Pearsall Smith, a glass manufacturer and Quaker evangelist, visited Whitman in Camden at the encouragement of his daughter, Mary Whitall Smith, and the poet soon became a guest at their house in Germantown. About this time Whitman also was a frequent guest of Thomas Donaldson, a Philadelphia lawyer who provided Whitman with free ferry passes and organized a collection to buy him a horse and buggy in 1885. During the 1880s Whitman acquired other notable allies in Philadelphia, including two on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, Horace Howard Furness, a Shakespearean scholar, and Daniel Garrison Brinton, an anthropologist. Others were George Henry Boker, a dramatist, poet, and diplomat; Charles Godfrey Leland, a writer and translator of Heine; Elizabeth Robins, a journalist; Joseph Pennell, a magazine illustrator; and Thomas Eakins, former director of the Academy of Fine Arts.

Whitman's growing network of friends enabled him to augment his reputation in Philadelphia through publications in local newspapers and charitable benefits in the form of lectures. From 1879 to 1887, Whitman published numerous articles in the Philadelphia Press and occasionally contributed to the Philadelphia Public Ledger and Philadelphia Times. Whitman's lecture on the death of Abraham Lincoln was profitably delivered in Philadelphia at least twice: at the Chestnut Street Opera House in 1886, and at the Contemporary Club in 1890. From the late 1880s, Whitman's birthday celebrations, arranged by friends in Camden and Philadelphia, were covered in the local press, particularly in 1890, when Robert G. Ingersoll, a professional speaker and agnostic, lectured on Whitman's behalf at C.H. Reisser's Restaurant in Philadelphia. After being refused by two other auditoriums, Ingersoll gave another lecture on 21 October at Philadelphia's Horticultural Hall attended by at least fifteen hundred people. After Whitman's death, his supporters continued to observe the poet's birthday and spread his fame, forming the Walt Whitman Fellowship, which lasted until 1919.

A century after the first publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855, the Delaware River Port Authority decided to name a new bridge after the poet so closely associated with both banks of the river. Many Philadelphians still remembered Whitman's reputation for indecency, and during the next two years the decision was disputed in the local papers, but on 15 May 1957 the Walt Whitman Bridge was officially dedicated.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Baedeker, Karl, ed. The United States with an Excursion into Mexico: A Handbook for Travellers. 1893. New York: Da Capo, 1971.

Giantvalley, Scott. Walt Whitman, 1838–1939: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1981.

Kummings, Donald D. Walt Whitman, 1940–1975: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1982.

McCullough, John M. "Walt Whitman Bridge—Philadelphia, 1957." Walt Whitman Newsletter 3 (1957): 42–44.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.


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