For two cents a day,
fifteen-year old Camden boy Harry Willets
kept local bullies from harassing "The Good Gray Poet"
We tend to take our
cultural icons seriously these days, and imagine that they were
as completely venerated when living as they are today.
Putting that viewpoint
into perspective is the somewhat ignominious state of affairs for
Walt Whitman late in his life. While America's most revered poet
is firmly memorialized, celebrated and made monumental these days
- in some measure an effort Whitman worked on himself during his
life - near the end, the fate of America's Good Gray Poet was an
iffy one in some respects.
In fact he was the butt
of children's pranks, according to an account given by one person
who knew him then.
The account is related
in a 1938 interview with Harry Willets in The Long-Islander newspaper,
a weekly publication in Walt's hometown of Huntington Long Island,
which he founded and which continues to publish to this day. And
if Willets is to be believed, his account reveals an old, paralyzed
man who was tormented by youngsters in his Camden, NJ neighborhood.
Now Harry Willets was
a flamboyant character. In his adulthood he moved to Huntington
and became known as the Winter Carnival King, officiating at the
annual bobsled races down the village Main Street with style and
energy - until one year he got in hot water because he was the owner
of a big racing vehicle of his own and wanted to enter the races
For what it's worth,
Willets' account of Whitman's tribulations on Mickle Street in Camden
portrays the 19th century literary giant as an old, graybearded
man in a wheelchair.
"I was just a big
skinny kid at the time," says Willets, who says he played with
the son of Walt's housekeeper. "We were a wild lot of kids,
always on the lookout to bedevil someone or raise mischief,"
The more helpless the victim, the more he was likely to be bedeviled,
"and you know ho quick kids are to single out a character.
Well, Walt Whitman just fitted that mold."
How so? According to
King Harry, Whitman had a long gray beard stained with tobacco juice;
he was lame and couldn't chase his tormentors; "and he would
sit around lazylike, and his big sombrero hat set him off,"
said Willets. "In the language of the street, he was a perfect
target." In fact the kids called Whitman "Old Tobacco
Juice," Willets explained, and threw stones and ripe old fruit
But according to Willets,
Walt Whitman was up to the challenge despite his apparent infirmity
- befriending the young boy. And before long he had the fifteen-year
old Willets acting as his protector. "He told me if I would
wheel him to the schoolyard every recess he would give me two cents
a day," said Harry. "I took the job, and the gang never
pestered Whitman after that. Instead, they waited until I had wheeled
him back home and they assembled at the corner candy store to take
me inside and direct the spending of the daily reward."
A nice understanding
of the Tao for a Nineteenth Century American with a widebrimmed
hat. But aside from the anecdotal value of the tale as a sample
of Whitman's character, Willets' story reveals the modest condition
under which Walt was forced to live during his later years in Camden.
"Walt would wit in his wheelchair and watch the kids play,
just gazing," he recalled. "Or write random note son his
scratchpad. After writing he would pull an apple out of his coat
pocket and pull out a knife from his pants pocket." Willets
recalled that the knife was an unusual one - handmade, with a large
blade and a black wooden casing within which was a four-pronged
detachable steel fork. "There is no question but what Walt
had the knife made to order for the special purpose of preparing
and eating wild fruit with it," suggested the editor of the
Not that Walt was expressly
concerned over money. As he told Horace Traubel, confidante and
author of With Whitman in Camden, America was too obsessed with
monetary success. "America (is) prone to count success in dollars,"
writes Traubel. "I do not mean to say that other things do
not go with these - objects, refinements, superb things certifying
to evolution...yet a money civilization can never last. We must
find surer foundations. Not to disdain goods, yet not to be ruled
by them - not to dawdle forever in parlors, with luxury, show."
But to continue Willets'
tale. According to Harry's 1938 account, Walt "always pared
the apple and quartered it, took the unique fork from the knife
and jabbing it into a quarter of the apple he would munch away."
Unfortunately, Whitman had a little bit of trouble manipulating
the unusual instrument. "A hook-like end of the knife was always
tearing holes in his pocket, and the knife would be lodged somewhere
around Walt's knee."
In the end, said Willets,
Whitman became disgusted with the knife, and gave it to the fifteen-year
Was the knife - today
in the possession of the Huntington Historical Society - given as
an act of generosity from a famous, albeit financially insecure
author? Or was it all that was left by which the crippled old man
could buy off the harassment of some local schoolboy bullies? Willets
does not say. However, he kept the items handed to him by America'
greatest poet and kept it his entire life. It became one of the
man's treasured possession and a touchstone for reminiscences he
shared liberally with the townspeople of Walt Whitman's home town
of Huntington Long Island.