Prologue to Walt Whitman's America:
A Cultural Biography

By David S. Reynolds

Blustery winds swept through Camden, New Jersey on the afternoon of May 31, 1889 as a large crowd gathered at Morgan's Hall to celebrate Walt Whitman's seventieth birthday. Camden, the drab town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, did not have much to boast of. The New York Sun had once joked that it was the refuge for those in doubt, debt, or despair. It is understandable, then, that nine of its citizens would organize a fete in its fanciest public hall for the famous poet who had lived there for sixteen years and who had made the town an unlikely mecca for a succession of traveling notables, including Oscar Wilde, Edmund Gosse, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The heavy skies that day threatened rain, but the atmosphere inside Morgan's was festive. Three long rows of dinner tables, two of them parallel with the third crossing them at the top, were the picture of elegance, with dazzling white table cloths and flowers everywhere. Banners festooned the walls, and a band played from a platform. The guests, some of whom had come a long way, had paid a $5.00 attendance fee. Crisply printed dinner menus, titled The Feast of Reason, promised they would get their money's worth. Little neck clams on the half shell and consomme royal soup were being offered as appetizers; fish with cucumber sauce, lamb, roast beef, and broiled chicken with mushrooms were the choice of entrees. For dessert there would be a tempting array of delectables, including bisque, fancy cakes, and ice cream, topped off by French coffee and cigars--right down to the proverbial nuts.

Whitman himself was not present when the crowd gathered at 5 P.M. It was a motley group. Off-beat writers like Hamlin Garland and Julian Hawthorne rubbed shoulders with stodgy Philadelphia lawyers and bankers. After dinner was cleared away, the air buzzed with anticipation of the poet's arrival.Soon a policeman cried, "He's coming!" The hall fell silent and all eyes were riveted on the entrance door.

Doubtless, many hearts sank at his pitiful condition. His large, once robust frame was now slumped in a wheel chair pushed by a male nurse. He had famously boasted in a poem of his perfect health, but a series of strokes--"whacks," he called them--had partly paralyzed him, while digestive and excretive disorders gave him what he described as "soggy, wet, sticky" feeling as of tar oozing over him.

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Other pieces by David Reynolds:

Introduction to Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography

The Humanities Crisis: Biography to the Rescue

Politics and Poetry: Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the Social Crisis of the 1850s