The renowned writer and poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) knew these parts quite well as a repeat guest of the Smith family in Germantown, enthralled during long country “rides” in the Wissahickon Valley, swept away by its stunning woods and waterways filled with a wide variety of Mother Nature’s creatures.
“I wish you could have two or three good drives with me about here,” Whitman wrote to a friend in 1883 while staying at the opulent home of the glass manufacturer Robert Pearsall Smith and his feminist wife, Hannah Whitall Smith, (former Quakers who became Holiness evangelists) because “we have a fast, strong, gentle young sorrel mare” cruising “first rate … roads & views [that] are the finest you ever saw …” and “the richest tract in Pennsylvania.”
Such excursions, Whitman insisted in the note to Susan Stafford that I found via his online book of letters, "The Correspondence, 1876-1885," were “like Paradise.” And so was the Smiths’s home in the 4600 block of Germantown Aveenue with plush adornments and even servants, Whitman noted, as he rebounded from an earlier stroke.
Perhaps most well-known for his poetic masterpiece "Leaves of Grass" that was republished by Philadelphia’s Sherman & Co. Printers in 1882 (just a decade before his 1892 death in nearby Camden, N.J., where he had been residing during his later years), Whitman pushed the conventional boundaries with themes of sex (some hinting of homosexuality) and the universality of the human spirit, as well as nature, causing much social and literary ruckus, to the dismay of Hannah Smith but delight of her daughter, Mary, a staunch Whitman fan.
The great wordsmith, who also wrote about the riveting details of the American Civil War as a poet and newspaper correspondent and in letters to relatives while a field nurse, also defended runaway slaves in humanistic language that sometimes riled up traditionalists and racists.
“The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside[.] I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile[.] Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak … And brought water and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet.”
Whitman also placed “plasters on the galls of [the runaway’s] neck and ankles,” presumably where iron chains had broken the slave’s inflamed flesh. “He staid with me a week before he recuperated and pass’d north[.] I had him sit next me at table, my fire-lock [or firearm] lean’d in the corner,” he wrote in "Song of Myself."
Relatedly, Whitman, a native New Yorker with Quaker roots, during the Civil War in 1864 observed parading black soldiers in Washington, D.C., whom had trained at Camp William Penn in Cheltenham Township, across the street from where President Lincoln was perched in hope of spotting his parading brother, George Whitman, of the 51st New York infantry.
Assigned to the Union’s Ninth Corps, the 43rd United States Colored Troops infantry (one of 11 such regiments to originate from Camp Penn) marched on April 26, 1864, by Willard’s Hotel on 14th Street where “on a second floor balcony to review the troops was a small crowd of notables, including … President Abraham Lincoln,” I wrote in my 2012 Schiffer-Publishing book, "Camp William Penn: 1863-1865."
A year later, Whitman memorialized the president’s April 1865 assassination following the war in an antique book that I found at a local second-hand shop, "Memories of President Lincoln," fusing his sensibilities of nature with the president’s train-bound casket cruising through America’s landscape, “Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards” while “carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave …”
Yet, what made Philadelphia’s environs so attractive to Whitman?
In addition to the woodlands and parks, it’s likely that a mixture of intellectual with gritty personalities drew him often by ferry to visit libraries, theaters, bars and a wide variety of friends, including George Henry Boker, a fellow poet and official of the Union League of Philadelphia that helped to finance the building of Camp William Penn.
“Whitman’s poetry had been sold through various outlets in Philadelphia since 1856,” wrote William A. Pannapacker for “Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia” in a piece that’s online at whitmanarchive.org, “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.”
Over the years, while recovering from the stroke, Whitman extensively networked while writing “numerous articles” for Philadelphia newspapers, noted Pannapacker, despite some folks perceiving Whitman as immoral and, quite frankly, a wild dude.
There was even quite a controversy, says Pannapacker, about whether the Delaware River Port Authority should name a bridge after Whitman following his 1892 demise, something that the poet likely would have appreciated because he encouraged debate and provoked change.
So, the next time you cross the Walt Whitman Bridge linking downtown Philly and Camden, N.J., keep in mind that Walt Whitman’s ultimate mission — despite his so-called idiosyncrasies — was to help bridge the gap of human misunderstanding or triteness to holistically appreciating nature’s boundless exquisiteness.