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 himself.

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 at him.

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 Long-Islander.

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 old boy.

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.


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