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The Tomb of Multitudes
Visiting Walt Whitman's family mausoleum
When I moved to southern New Jersey during the pandemic, I began searching the area for things to see and do. One park that showed up was Crystal Spring, where poet Walt Whitman—a resident of nearby Camden—found inspiration to write his poetry, including Leaves of Grass. So I found an edition that reprinted the 1855 manuscript before Whitman began editing and changing it, and sat down to read it at Crystal Spring at lunchtime. I mentioned this on Twitter, and Brian Donohue of News 12 asked if I wanted to be featured on his weekly program, Positively New Jersey. You can watch that here:
I didn’t know much about Walt Whitman before then. He’s an interesting American character in his own right. He self-published Leaves of Grass and promoted it heavily. He came to Camden late in life, where his home is a national landmark. It’s not much to look at; I drove past but it was closed. I’m not sure I’ll return. The tomb, however, is a landmark in its own right, and worth a visit:
Whitman was fond of grand gestures, and wanted a stately mausoleum for this family plot. According to this article, he was defrauded and spent a small fortune on this tomb. He designed it, and it evokes the Egyptian pyramids and neolithic burial mounds, having been built into the hillside of Harleigh Cemetery. It’s become an LGTBQ landmark, though some still argue over Whitman’s identity.
His tomb is still well-visited, if not all that well cared for. When I visited, the gate to the mausoleum was ajar and the marble floor was covered with autumn leaves. In spring.
However, the gates were decorated with artificial flowers, and inside, visitors had left thoughtful mementoes and also notes and poetry of their own:
I didn’t invade the privacy of those who left Walt messages that were taped shut. Jonathan left him a personalized pencil; someone else left a copy of Walt’s poem elegizing assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” Roses, and a quill in a bell were also among the leaf litter.
I wonder how many were students who visited on a field trip, and how many came on their own. Whitman is Camden’s most famous former resident, even if he only lived there at the end of his life. The city even claims his words “city invincible” on their hall, when he certainly intended them for New York, as he lived in Brooklyn when he wrote them. But it’s okay to love him. He’s kind of a stud. Oscar Wilde thought so, and he didn’t meet Walt until the poet was 62.
Whitman was charismatic enough to elicit candles from visitors well over a hundred years after his death:
It’s a pleasant enough location that one might read Leaves of Grass while seated on a stone there. If you do, I recommend having your repast at Donkey’s Place, a local dive bar known for its unique cheese steak sandwich, serviced on a poppy seed kaiser roll. Anthony Bourdain was quite fond of it.
Here is a gallery of photos taken in and around the tomb: