February 24, 2010

Whitman and Davis on Mickle Street

Mrs. Mary Oakes Davis moved in with the aging poet Walt Whitman on February 24, 1885. Whitman and Davis met while both were living in Camden, New Jersey. She was the widow of a sea captain and Whitman often visited her and had breakfast at her house on West Street. Whitman, who suffered a stroke in 1873 (he would have a few more before his death), lived for a time with his brother George Washington Whitman, paying room and board. In 1884, he purchased his own house on Mickle Street (now preserved and open to the public as the Walt Whitman House), and Mrs. Davis moved in a month later.

The home was a two-story row house with six rooms and no furnace. It cost Whitman $1,750. Friends and family did not approve; one called it "the worst house and the worst situated." Another noted it "was the last place one would expect a poet to select for a home."

Davis became Whitman's housekeeper in exchange for a room. When she moved in, she brought her cat, a dog, two turtledoves, and a canary (and probably more). Whitman biographer Justin Kaplan speculates that she hoped they would get married. Whitman hoped she would help him enough that he could rest and write at will. "I am very lame & find it difficult to get about here, even small distances," he confided to a friend after Davis moved in. She was, however, "in every respect (handiwork & atmosphere) the very best and most acceptable that could have befallen me."

After Whitman's death, he left Davis $1,000 in his will. Whitman was never well-off but he was comfortable financially. Davis believed she was owed much more, and sued the estate, claiming she spent much of her own money out of pocket on his behalf.


  1. Kind of an interesting story about Whitman.

    I never thought that Whitman was interested in women?

    I think if she was the housekeeper (and not a lover) that should of been happy to get the $1000.

  2. It's fascinating - there is so much debate over Whitman's sexuality. It doesn't seem as cut and dry as some people want it to be. Certainly, the neighbors gossiped when Davis moved in, but whether she expected a relationship is really uncertain. Whitman himself claimed to have had relationships with several women, even fathering a handful of children.

  3. It sounds like she should have been grateful--that's nearly half the cost of his house! And for a man who didn't have much money, very generous.

    FYI-I love that you're posting these on facebook now. Or maybe I'm just now noticing them. Helps me remember to keep up with your great posts!