“Flood-tide below me. I see you face to face.
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.”
Walt Whitman addressed the crowd with a reading of his poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” at Rutgers University – Camden on the evening of May 29, in celebration of his 200th birthday. Or was it Darrel Ford, a Whitman impersonator for the past 45 years and bearing a striking resemblance to Whitman, who stood at the podium and lectured the audience who came out in celebration of one of the greatest literary minds.
“It is a joy for us to be here,” said David A. Stedman, president of the Walt Whitman Association. “I represent the Walt Whitman Association, who are friends of Walt and successors who celebrated his birthday with him in his lifetime, and continue to support the home and the legacy Walt has. This year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, was very exciting for us as Rutgers said that they were going to put on a great exhibit here.”
In addition to the celebration, the Rutgers – Camden Center for the Arts was also debuting a new exhibit, “Democratic Vistas: Whitman, Body and Soul,” which features work addressing themes from Whitman’s poetry.
“This is a pleasure, particularly because we are celebrating one of Camden’s most famous sons and daughters – in this case, a son – Walt Whitman. We are not just in Camden; we are Camden, and this is our city, as well as it was Walt Whitman’s,” said Rutgers University – Camden Chancellor Phoebe A. Haddon. “If Walt Whitman is one of the most famous literary icons to emerge from Camden then, obviously for me, it was perfect to have this celebration here at Rutgers – Camden. It’s perfect in the sense that we have research faculty who are among the leaders in helping us get a better understanding of the man and his work, and our professors have written extensively about him.”
Stedman continued the evening’s events by recalling Whitman’s final birthday, which took place in his Camden home on a “hot and sultry” day in 1892.
“A group of literary persons came into [Walt’s] home to set up for his birthday. They took all of the interior doors out of [his] house, took all of the furniture out and set up tables in a ‘t-shape’ for a catered meal,” he said. “If you have ever seen Walt’s house, they called it a ‘shanty,’ and it certainly is. They were expecting 36 people for dinner. That was what they had planned and they had bribed all of the little boys who came around to annoy people to leave them alone. Walt came down the stairs, his nurse Warren Fritzinger carried him down to a great, thunderous applause by all of these people. He had his meal – bread and champagne. That was his last birthday. Then everyone went home and left his house a mess.”
Stedman though, assured Chancellor Haddon, he would make sure he did not leave Rutgers a mess after the celebration had concluded. He, then, went on to read a message from former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Keane, who was unable to make it out to the event due to a conflicting event.
“I am so sorry that I could not be there tonight to celebrate New Jersey and America’s greatest poet,” Keane said in a statement. “When you celebrate Walt Whitman, you celebrate America, itself. Those of us who have been to his house can still feel his spirit.”
“Democratic Vistas: Whitman, Body and Soul” will be on display at Rutgers University – Camden in the Stedman Gallery located in the Fine Arts Building, 303 Cooper St., Camden, through Dec. 7. Street meter parking is available.