Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

Another 328 Mickle Street story

Interesting, in this new book I’m reading, Keller describes the condition of the house when Whitman purchased it in the winter of 1884-5. Keller writes of the house:


 

 

Fast forward to 1906, 14 years after Whitman died – here’s an image of Whitman’s house from a postcard I recently added to my collection. The exterior of the house looks to be in pretty good shape. The house, at that time, was still embroiled in a bit of a squabble, but looks good.

 

 


Fast forward again to 2012 – here’s an image of the house from my visit in March. Not too bad for a 165 (+/-) year old house, huh!?!

 

 

Keller, Elizabeth Leavitt. Walt Whitman in Mickle Street. New York:  J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1921. pp. 18-19.

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Thomas Eakins Portrait of Walt Whitman

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Historic Landmark Building, Second floor, Room 9) houses the 1888 Thomas Eakins portrait of Walt Whitman. I was quite excited to view this original, superb and breathtaking portrait. It is my personal favorite portrait of Whitman. (Although the Whitman House in Camden, NJ has a pencil/charcoal drawing of Whitman by Horace Traubel’s father (Maurice Traubel) that is stunning!).

 

Eakins was an artist with exceptional talent. I had my picture taken as I stood very close to the portrait. As I was standing very near this impressive work – you know that feeling of ‘someone standing over your shoulder’? Where you can actually feel a person’s presence, perhaps feel their energy. I experienced that exact feeling standing close to Whitman’s portrait! It truly felt to me that Whitman was there – with me, as if he could whisper in my ear. Yea, I know it’s only the craziness in my own head, but I happily discovered it to be a very calm and reassuring feeling; Whitman was there in that moment.

 

 

This experience of “being in the physical presence of Whitman” brings to mind Whitman’s poem So Long. In this poem, the reader has the feeling that Whitman is right there with you. In the last few stanzas of the poem, Whitman writes:

 

 

 


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328 Mickle Street

Walt Whitman's house

Walt’s house, 328 Mickle Street, has an interesting story all its own. In Volume One of With Walt Whitman in Camden there is a discussion of a need to get Walt’s affairs in order as there is fear of his imminent death. Whitman was asked if he yet owed anything on the house. Whitman responds:

 


 
Now, where the story of the house on Mickle gets most interesting – fast forward to 1893, a year after Walt’s death. Whitman’s longtime housekeeper, Mary Davis, brought a lawsuit against the Whitman estate, claiming she was owed yet for services she rendered to Whitman and was never paid. What follows is the sordid sort of thing right out of a modern day soap opera! From the Walt Whitman Archive:

 

    “Davis occasioned a rift among Whitman followers when she

brought a lawsuit against the poet’s estate claiming that she was owed a

considerable sum for unpaid nursing duties performed in the last years

of Walt’s life.13 The suit was brought against George Whitman, the

principal beneficiary of the estate, who was represented in court by

Thomas Harned. In July of 1893 Traubel gave Wallace his side of the

story, beginning with the statement that Mrs. Davis’ claim was “fraudulent” and would never be won. He explains that according to U.S. law her acceptance of her part of the legacy (Whitman had left her $1000) bars her from making further claims. As to the merits of her bill for nursing from 1885 to 1892, he argues, “From ’85 to ’88 Walt had no nurse-needed none-(for he went about himself with perfect ease)and from 1888 on, when the need was evident, we furnished and hired the man.” Her housekeeping, he says, was so lacking that “Mrs. O’Connor, Mrs. Johnston, Mrs. Harned and others of the women friends of Walt were always protesting that it was our duty to get rid of Mrs. Davis & see that Walt had quarters conducive to comfort & health. But for the desperate objections that we knew Walt would make, we would never have submitted him in his sickness to her housekeeping, which was considered deleterious in the highest degree” (July 16, 1893).


There is a subplot to all of this, however, having to do with the

house on Mickle Street which Harned and Traubel were eager to acquire.

In Whitman’s will of 1891 the property at 328 Mickle Street was

left to Walt’s sister-in-Iaw, Mrs. George Whitman, with the proviso that

the property be used to support his retarded brother, Edward. Mrs.

Whitman died in August of 1892 (five months after Walt’s death) and

Edward died in November of the same year. This meant that George

Whitman became the principal beneficiary of Walt’s estate, and Traubel

and Harned were trying to get George to turn the house over to them for

preservation. In January of 1893 Traubel wrote to Wallace of his hopes

that now that Eddie was dead, the Whitman estate would give the house

up for preservation so that the money already raised, from Whitman

admirers, for its purchase could be used for repairs and as an endowment.


In August he had the key to the house in his pocket, but

complained that “George cannot be made to see that the house should

not be sold but preserved” (August 7, 1893). In November he fulminated

against George and other members of the Whitman family who

were holding out over “this paltry few hundred dollars yet were content

in W’s lifetime to leave him in the hands of his friends” (November 13,

1893).


Even if George had been willing to turn the house over to Traubel

and Harned, there was a hindrance in the form of Mrs. Davis and her

foster son, Warry. According to Elizabeth Keller, Mary Davis had

convinced George Whitman’s wife that she was entitled to a sum of

money to cover expenses she had incurred as Walt’s housekeeper, but

when Mrs. Whitman died her husband did not share this opinion

(Keller, 182-183). He refused to consider Mrs. Davis’ claim, and Mrs.

Davis refused to leave the premises. In July of 1893 Traubel, with

Harned, who was acting as George’s attorney, attempted to force Mrs.

Davis and Warry to vacate the premises. Obviously the two executors

thought that by supporting George’s position they would secure their

own designs on the property.


Traubel was infuriated by the Davis claim: “It is enough to stir up

his [Whitman’s] poor dead bones,” he cried to Wallace. His frustration

increased when others of the Whitman circle of admirers did not agree

with him on the matter. It was his contention that “Walt never contracted with Mrs. Davis except that he would waive rent for the house and she would waive charges for board. We always knew of this arrangement” (January 26, 1894).


On January 31 (1894) the jury awarded Mrs. Davis $500 and the case

was finished. The cost to the Whitman estate, Traubel informed Wallace,

would be about $1,000. While he does not say so, one can imagine

his distress at this since it appears to have been at least part of George

Whitman’s reason for not giving the Mickle Street house to the literary

executors as they had hoped. On March 3 Traubel wrote to Wallace that

he no longer believed George would either give them or sell them the

house. “He is absolutely an ass, and I know no man meaner in the face

of facts which would move any other human being I know to generosity

and appreciation.”

 

As dramatic and no doubt stress-inducing this was at the time, this story ends with a good conclusion. Sadly though, Traubel did not live long enough to see it finally come to a close. Upon George Whitman’s death, the house was transferred to Walt’s niece Jessie Whitman (Thomas Jefferson Whitman’s daughter). Geoffrey Sill writes:

 

 

Click to visit The Walt Whitman House. (Now operated by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Foresty).

 

Credits:

 

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roomofmyown/573031217/

 

Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp. 291.

 

Krieg, Joann P. (1994). “Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.” The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/wwqr/pdf/anc.00688.pdf

 

Sill, Geoffrey M. (1998). “Minkle Street House.” The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_33.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

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