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Having worked in Camden, New Jersey, for 16 years, the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman is ubiquitous. Whitman’s final Camden home – the only one he ever owned – is a National Historic Landmark. Murals honoring or including Whitman are found throughout town. He’s also buried in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery in an impressive mausoleum. The two leading bridges that connect Camden and Philadelphia are named after Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman.
Inscribed over City Hall are the words from a Whitman poem: “In a dream, I saw a city invincible.” Camden’s invincibility has been challenged for much of the last 50 years, which is still recovering from an exodus of people and manufacturing jobs. For a while, it had the nation’s highest murder rate. It continues to suffer high unemployment rates. But it is making an impressive comeback, thanks to a new medical school, its largest employer, Cooper University Hospital, and new corporate investments such as Subaru’s new North American headquarters and a new hotel on the waterfront. Police reforms of nearly a decade ago are a model for the nation.
And through it all, Camden has clung to Whitman and his brilliant career and contributions to American literature.
Whitman’s statue is also a centerpiece of Rutgers-Camden University. At least until now. Thanks to a petition with 3,853 names – less than the proponent’s goal of 5,000 – the chancellor and a “committee of scholars” associated with the publicly funded school is relocating Whitman’s formidable statue to a less conspicuous but still “historically significant” place on campus, whatever that means.
Walt Whitman, who died in 1892, is canceled. Who gets to tell thousands of writers he inspired, even today?
From the petition:
We are calling for the removal of the Walt Whitman statue which stands tall in the middle of our campus. Rutgers- Camden has been making efforts recently to remove symbols around our campus which continue to perpetuate a racist past. I believe that the statue of Walt Whitman glorifies a man who we should not hold such a place of honor on our campus. Our school encourages inclusion, diversity, and equity while Whitman stood for none of those things. He instead stood for white supremacy and racism against Black and Indigenous Americans.
Quote of Walt Whitman’s white supremacist beliefs: “The [REDACTED], like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable- always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.” – Walt Whitman
Aside from needing an editor, the petitioners didn’t get everything they wanted. They wanted Whitman removed entirely. Ignored or denigrated, apparently, are all of Whitman’s work – including his seminal and most famous work, “Leaves of Grass” (you remember, the book President Bill Clinton famously gifted to White House intern Monica Lewinsky). As usual, things are a bit more complicated. From a Walt Whitman archive site:
Walt Whitman’s seemingly inconsistent and self-contradictory attitudes toward slavery have long been a source of critical debate. On one hand, Whitman’s opposition to slavery is demonstrated in Leaves of Grass by the way in which he consistently includes African Americans in his vision of an ideal, multiracial republic and portrays them as beautiful, dignified, and intelligent. On the other hand, various Whitman texts show that he had little tolerance for abolitionism, that he thought blacks were inferior to whites, and that his opposition to the extension of slavery had little, if anything, to do with sympathy for slaves. . .
How Whitman achieved such a vision is difficult if not impossible to trace. One possibility is that Whitman’s reading of Emerson, which occurred at about the same time, may have prompted Whitman toward a sense of his own divinity which he recognized as connected to the divinity of all others, including slaves. He may later have been sensitized to the plight of slaves during a four-month stint as editor of the New Orleans Crescent in 1848, when he wrote about persons of color he encountered and likely witnessed slave auctions. At any rate, by the late 1840s Whitman had established a pattern of opposing the extension of slavery as a Free-Soiler journalist while imagining persons of African descent in radically sympathetic and inclusive terms in his poetry.
Or this, from WaltWhitman.com:
Aside from writing poetry, Whitman moved to Washington D.C and found employment as a clerk. It was the time of the Civil War, and his eyes were opened to the sufferings of numerous men and women. He was deeply moved after seeing their pain and suffering, that he decided to devote some of his precious time visiting soldiers who were injured because of the war. He also helped them by dressing their wounds and sending messages of peace and hope.
His experience in helping wounded soldiers was one of his inspirations for the poems he wrote in the book published in 1865. Several titles were included in the book such as the poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, which was the poet’s elegy dedicated to President Lincoln.
Walt Whitman is the product of time he did not create. Many of his views reflected public opinion at the time – especially in the anti-slavery north. Instead of a university removing his statue, it should be an excellent opportunity to teach and provide context. Instead, many woke students want to erase history that is important and provides context during one of the most turbulent times in America’s history.
Major fail, Rutgers-Camden. Like so many others, you have again yielded to the woke impulse of presentism – applying words and actions of prior years to the “standards” of today (which apparently have substituted context for pretext). What’s the rest of Camden going to do with all their tributes and reminders of Whitman’s legacy? Time will tell, but I suspect not much.Published in