Camden, New Jersey, probably isn’t your first choice for a Valentine’s Day library photo blog, but you won’t regret it. Fascinating libraries and Poet Walt Whitman’s cute little house are still there. He wrote some romantic verse, but unappreciative critics called it “obscene and scandalous.” It sure didn’t take much in the 1850s!
Here’s a lovely, tame warm-up from Walt, with something a little more risqué later.
“Love, that is day and night – Love, that is sun and moon and stars. Love, that is crimson, sumptuous, sick with perfume, No other words but words of love, No other thought but love.”
And what else goes with poetry for Valentine’s day besides chocolate and flowers? Music! Camden is the home of the Victor Talking Machine Company, established in 1901 and bought by RCA in 1929. And they weren’t just for talking but singing and dancing too!
Camden, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, started as a fur trading post in 1626. Once the largest shipbuilder in America, production peaked during World War II. But they still have the USS Battleship New Jersey for tourists. Campbell’s Soup began bubbling on the stove in 1869. Today the soup remains in local stores, but most of their employees work elsewhere. Race riots in the 70s, corruption, and mismanagement dragged down the economy. Poverty and violence persist, but Walt called the city “invincible.” Camden is rebuilding businesses and condos and has a beautiful new park along the waterfront.
This weekend, Camden’s Adventure Aquarium is celebrating Hippo Love. They require social distancing and masks, but the animals don’t care what you look like or how you sound. And I’ve heard zoo animals are getting lonely without us! How about an unforgettable encounter with hippos, penguins, sea turtles, mammals, birds, or reptiles with your special someone on Valentine’s Day? “Roses are red, violets are blue; let’s go play with a snake and do something new!” I know, I know, Walt’s poetry is much better! Here’s a link to see their adorable hippos or book one of those out-of-the-box live encounters. https://www.adventureaquarium.com
Camden is home to two Carnegie libraries and another downtown public library. Our first Carnegie library is hanging on by a thread, or should I say a bookmark? Camden’s Free Public Library Main Building opened in 1905 but the doors closed, and it relocated 80 years later. Now the beautiful old building is dying a slow, painful death. In 1992, it was placed on several registers for historic places. Ten years later, some funding was allocated to stabilize it. But even if the building were to reopen, this part of town needs a major overhaul as well.
The second library, Cooper Library in Johnson Park, was built in 1916 with Carnegie’s assistance, ten years after the main library. This library is on the National Register of Historic Places, part of Rutgers University, and now the Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center. Under the building’s eaves, a mosaic frieze is called “America Receiving the Gifts of Nations.” The library arts center was closed when I visited, and the mosaics were covered. I hope post-COVID, or in the Spring, the mosaics are unveiled, and the building reopens.
The library’s name comes from the Cooper Ferry Company, licensed in 1688 to transport goods between Camden and Philadelphia. The Cooper family played a key role in Camden’s early days, and historic Cooper Street ends at the waterfront. The British used this ferry company during the Revolutionary War when they captured Philadelphia in 1777. Later, the park was a stagecoach stop and then a railroad terminal. Sadly, slave trading also took place here.
Johnson Park, encompassing the Cooper Library, was named for Eldridge Johnson. He donated the land for the library in 1921 and founded the Victor Talking Machine Company. His corner building is still in use and has a great park view.
RCA’s famous mascot is a dog named Nipper, and the story is too cute to believe. A British artist’s fox terrier dog named Nipper sat in front of a talking machine with his ear cocked to listen to “his master’s voice” in 1898. The artist had inherited a phonograph, recordings of his brother’s voice, and little Nipper when his brother died. When he played the records, the dog was fascinated at the sound of “his master’s voice.” After painting the scene, he eventually sold it to the British Gramophone Company Limited, where it shot to fame. The Nipper painting became a trademark of the Gramophone Company and its American affiliate, the Victor Talking Machine Company, in 1901. RCA purchased the Victor Company and the trademark in 1929.
When RCA’s manufacturing stopped in 1992, many old buildings fell into decay. A 1916 building is now a loft apartment development called the Victor. Several other RCA buildings have also been reinvigorated, including the Nipper, and the reno of another oldie into Radio Lofts. Camden, little Nipper, and the old-world buildings used for talking machines are rebounding. Alexa would be so excited; she’d do a cartwheel.
Our third and final Camden library stop circles back to the first one. The original Carnegie-financed main library moved in 1985 but hit a financial wall and closed in 2011. Now it’s been resurrected as the Nilsa I. Cruz-Perez Downtown Branch and located within Rutgers’ Paul Robeson library. Nilsa is from Puerto Rico, and in 1995, she was the first Latina woman to serve in NJ’s General Assembly. Today, Nilsa is a Democratic member of the NJ Senate.
The six-block Cooper Street Historic District deserves a stroll. Old buildings with interesting signs make it easy to learn about the history. Johnson Square and Cooper library, now the Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center, is here too.
Camden in Camden County was incorporated in 1828, but the name dates further back and might have been Pratt. In 1765, Sir Charles Pratt became the first Earl of Camden, Baron Camden of Camden Place, and a member of the British ruling House of Lords. He was one of only five Lords who voted against taxing British colonies without consent and representation. Sound slightly familiar?
Sir Charles of Camden died in England in 1794, and from what I can tell, never visited the USA. In London, the funky and fun Camden Town is on some of his land and was named for him. The family line of male heirs continues today with James William John Pratt, the 7th Marquess of Camden.
American Poet Walter “Walt” Whitman was born in New York State in 1819. When he was only 11 years old, he went to work as a “printer’s devil” to help support his family. What a cool job for the resume! The “devil” was an apprentice assigned to odd jobs in the printing and publishing business and must have included the dirty, unbearably hot, and sweaty work. His time as a “devil” paid off. Walt stayed in the publishing, editing, and writing business for the rest of his life.
Walt wasn’t the type to wait around for an agent or a publisher. With many years of devilish experience, he self-published the first edition of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass in 1855. Here’s his one-of-a-kind, unbeatable bio: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.”
Despite receiving high praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, his masterpiece was called “trashy, profane, obscene, and written by a pretentious ass.” Only days after Leaves of Grass was published, his father died. Hopefully, unrelated to the book and the bad reviews! At least he’d be proud of him today.
Criticism that harsh could drive a writer to drink or give up, but not Walt. He kept at it, revising, updating, and re-publishing his best-known book, a whopping nine times, until a few years before he died in 1892. But I know how he feels. It’s tempting to keep editing. As they say, the devil’s in the details! Throughout his lifetime, his poems were controversial for their overt sensuality. Walt’s personal life was also under attack over his presumed homosexuality and bi-sexual lifestyle.
In early 1873, Walt had a stroke and moved to his brother’s house in Camden. His mother, also in poor health, and another disabled brother also lived there. In 1884, when his brother’s family moved to a farmhouse in Burlington, NJ, including space for Walt, he opted for city life and stayed in Camden.
Walt bought his first home at 328 Mickle Street, now MLK Boulevard. He took in tenants who helped out since he was bedridden and broke most of the time. Mary Oakes Davis, a sea captain’s widow, moved in as his housekeeper for free rent. Never a dull moment with Walt the-animal-lover, he let her bring in her menagerie: a cat, a dog, two turtledoves, a canary, and more.
Walt’s residence is a few blocks away from historic Coopers Street, upscale in its day, but his house was on the more challenging side of the tracks. His brother was against his purchase of this modest 1848 Greek-revival wood framed two-story house in a bad part of town. Walt knew it was shabby and fondly called it his “shanty” or “coop.” Perhaps Housekeeper Mary brought chickens with her too. His house cost less than $2000, and he scrimped and saved for a fancier longer-term residence. A granite house-shaped mausoleum, which he designed and visited often, set him back $4000.
Walt didn’t regret his time in Camden and wrote his last works there. He said, “Camden was originally an accident – but I shall never by sorry. I was left over in Camden. It has brought me blessed returns.” The final tweaking and adding to Leaves of Grass stopped with the release in 1892 of the “Deathbed Edition.” He sounded exhausted and reflected on his life’s work. “After 33 years of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old.”
Just months later, he died at the age of 72. A public viewing was held at his Camden house before Walt was moved into his fancy new permanent home away from home at the historic Harleigh Cemetery nearby. The remains of his parents and two of his brothers and their families moved into the upscale mausoleum later.
His heirs sold Walt’s house to the city. Now it’s owned by the State of NJ. Since 1926, it’s been a museum with a collection of rare photographs, antique furnishings, original letters, personal belongings, his death bed, the death notice taped to the front door, and more. The six-room house is open for tours, but not on the day in January when I happened to be there during COVID.
Andrew Carnegie, the richer-than-rich supporter of libraries everywhere, called Walt “the greatest poet of America so far.” Perhaps this is why he supported not just one but two libraries in Camden. I wonder what authors would make his top ten list today.
A 1950s bridge connecting Philadelphia to NJ, south of Camden, was named in his honor. But Walt might be more pleased with his crater on planet Mercury. And he’s in good company. Melville, Twain, Poe, Hemingway, and Thoreau are fellow writers with craters. This colorful public domain photo is from some heavy hitters: NASA, John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
And now, one last romantic love poem from Song of Myself, the 1892 version, in his final Deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass.
“I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.”
Ready for more trees, leaves, or grass? Leaves of Grass is in the public domain and downloads are available for free through Project Gutenberg. The New York Public library also has some original manuscripts available online.
Karen Stensgaard is a novelist, and like Walt, has self-published her books, Aquavit and Blueness. She looks forward to self-publishing another one when she stops revising it. Happy St. Val’s Day, everyone!
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