Selected Criticism

Timber Creek
Nelson, Howard
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Timber Creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, runs through southern New Jersey. A spot on the creek about twelve miles from Camden, where Whitman had moved in 1873, became a favorite retreat for the poet for several years in the late 1870s and into the 1880s, playing an important role in both his life and his work.

The site of Whitman's Timber Creek retreat lies in the town of Laurel Springs, then only a rural crossroads. Whitman first visited there in 1876. His residence was with the Stafford family—George, Susan, and their children. It was through one of the Stafford sons, Harry, whom he met in a print shop where his pamphlet Two Rivulets was being set, that Whitman came to know the Staffords. Whitman's status in the Stafford home was that of a paying guest but also a friend, and his visits sometimes extended through most of the summer.

In the years just before Whitman began to visit Timber Creek, he had experienced some of the hardest blows of his life: he was semi-paralytic from a stroke, and his mother had died. Whitman was at a low ebb, physically and emotionally. Timber Creek was a place of recuperation for him. Some, Whitman among them, have suggested that the place and the relationships associated with it saved his life.

The Stafford farmhouse was on a rise above the creek, and Whitman made his way down to it along a lane, lined with an old rail fence that became a footpath as it approached the water. At first he went slowly and with assistance, with a companion carrying a chair for him to stop and rest at short intervals. As time went on he became more mobile and independent, and he would spend many hours down along the creek, resting, observing, musing, jotting, and practicing a program of physical therapy that partially rehabilitated his body, as the entire Timber Creek experience rejuvenated his spirit.

Whitman's days at Timber Creek are memorably recorded in Specimen Days, in some of his best nature writing and freshest prose. Whitman referred to the unspoiled creek, which afforded both privacy and natural beauty, as "the secluded-beautiful" (121). He observed and absorbed the water and trees, the plants, birds, and insects, the sun and wind and changes in the weather, and he experienced states of great pleasure, relaxation, and receptiveness that blended the therapeutic and the mystical: "How they and all grow into me, day after day—everything in keeping—the wild, just-palpable perfume, and the dapple of leaf-shadows, and all the natural-medicinal, elemental-moral influences of the spot" (121).

The physical therapy he practiced here included sun-bathing, mud-bathing, bathing at a flowing spring, scrubbing his skin with a hard brush, sauntering along the bank wearing only shoes and a straw hat, singing bits of opera and folksongs and reciting poetry, and wrestling with the saplings that grew along the bank. Whitman and most biographers have emphasized the solitude of Timber Creek, but human relationships were also important. Mrs. Stafford had a special fondness for Whitman, and his relationship with her son Harry became one of the most intense attachments of his life. The company of Harry and other young men from the neighborhood was a key part of the powerful attraction, both idyllic and emotional, that Timber Creek had for Whitman.

Some of Whitman's admirers raised a fund for the purpose of building the poet a cottage along the creek, but the plan never materialized. Today the spring where Whitman bathed (its flow now much diminished) and a section of creek bank are a public park in the town of Laurel Springs. From the 1930s through the 1950s the site lay beneath the town dump, but through the efforts of local citizens it was cleaned up and restored. The Stafford house, now called the Whitman Stafford House, has also been restored and is open to the public.


Aspiz, Harold. "Specimen Days: The Therapeutics of Sun-Bathing." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 1.3 (1983): 48–50.

Binns, Henry Bryan. A Life of Walt Whitman. London: Methuen, 1905.

Bradley, Sculley. "Walt Whitman on Timber Creek." American Literature 5 (1933): 235–246.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Shively, Charley. Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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