When Walt Whitman Did AC

One of the world’s most respected poets had a passion for the people and places along the Jersey shore.

By Tom Wilk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 28, 2012

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The writer lived three blocks from the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey, but his thoughts turned to the Atlantic Ocean when he awoke one Sunday morning in January 1879.

“A bright clear sunrise after a good night’s rest” left Walt Whitman in a positive frame of mind. The 59-year-old poet and author of Leaves of Grass decided to set out for Atlantic City for a day trip.

Since moving to Camden in the spring of 1873 to live with his brother, George, the native New Yorker had expressed a desire to visit the Jersey Shore. 

In a letter to a friend dated June 21, 1873, Whitman describes his health ailments in the aftermath of suffering a stroke but also adds: “As soon as I get a little stronger and free from head distress, I shall go down to Atlantic City.”

Leo D. Blake, curator of the Walt Whitman House in Camden, where the poet lived until his death in March 1892, said Whitman was attracted to the water. 

“Whitman certainly did draw inspiration around water,” he says, “from the Hudson and East rivers to the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean. His work is immersed in it, often as a reflection of his thoughts.”

“He mentions in Notebooks and Daybooks of visiting Jersey shore areas, namely Ocean Grove and Cape May,” Blake added. Two of Whitman’s poems — “Patrolling Barnegat” and “By thine own lips, O Sea” — were inspired by visits to the Jersey shore.

At the time of his journey, Atlantic City was undergoing a period of growth since its founding a quarter of a century earlier. The population would grow from 1,043 in 1870 to 5,477 a decade later, an increase of more than 425 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At a time before the invention of the automobile, many visitors to the Jersey shore traveled by railroad and Whitman was not any different. The poet turned travel writer to describe his trip for a story in the Philadelphia Times, providing a glimpse of the resort city before it became internationally known.

Gazing out the window of his train as it traveled across southern New Jersey, Whitman wrote that he enjoyed seeing the winter landscape. He recounted some of the towns he passed through, including Collingswood, Haddonfield, Williamstown and Hammonton.

Anticipation increased as he drew closer to his final destination when the train rolled through Egg Harbor City and Pomona. 

“Passing right through five or six miles (I could have journeyed with delight for a hundred) of these odorous sea prairies we come to the end — the Camden and Atlantic depot within good gun-shot of the beach.”

Whitman’s first impressions focused on the natural appeal of the shoreline, which he described in glowing terms, marveling at the expanse of unspoiled sand and the recurring presence of salt waves.

In Atlantic City, Whitman traveled around by horse and carriage and on foot. While riding along the beach, he was surprised how the carriage wheels barely made a dent in the sand. He enjoyed the seaside atmosphere that could not be found around his Camden home.

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