Controversy swirled around the naming of the Walt Whitman Bridge in Camden’s Catholic community late in 1955. As we learned in our last post, the Reverend James Ryan of nearby Westville, New Jersey claimed Whitman’s writings conveyed “a revolting homosexual imagery . . . permeates the fetid whole.”
Not to be outdone, the Reverend Edward Lucitt, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, sent a letter of protest to the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA). “Walt Whitman himself had neither the noble stature or quality of accomplishment that merits this tremendous honor,” wrote Lucitt, “his life and works are personally objectionable to us.”
“He is not great enough to deserve this honor,” insisted Lucitt, who argued “his political philosophy, dusted off the scrap heap during the depression, as the Voice of the Common Man, has proved alien to Jeffersonian Democracy, and he is now the Poet Laureate of the World Communist Revolution.”
A letter-writing campaign gained momentum on both sides of the Delaware. Students in the South Jersey’s 58 Catholic schools were encouraged to propose alternate “great men of New Jersey” the DRPA might consider instead of Whitman. Within a few months, nearly 1,500, mostly form letters, filled the Port Authority’s in-box. According to historian Marc Stein, “90% of the New Jersey writers were anti-Whitman; 77% of the Philadelphia writers were pro Whitman.” The DRPA received anti-Whitman letters from the Camden chapter of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic War Veterans, the American Gold Star Mothers; a chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars in South Jersey and two labor unions. Among Whitman’s most organized and ardent supporters were of English professors on faculty at the University of Pennsylvania.
One resourceful letter writer from Philadelphia found a passage by Philadelphia’s Agnes Repplier labeling Whitman “an ‘incurable poseur’ who “loved his indecency . . . clinging to it with an almost embarrassing ardor.” Another writer suggested the contrary, that “the Port Authority should not be pressured into rejecting Whitman “just because he didn’t think in narrow, dogmatic religious terms, nor behave in strict, puritan, conforming ways.”
By March 1956, the chairman of DRPA’s Special Committee on Bridge Names, formed the previous June, confirmed the original decision to name the bridge for Whitman. He holds an “honored place in our history,” concluded the committee. Plus, the agency added, they “found no evidence Whitman was homosexual.”
The 7-lane Walt Whitman Bridge opened on May 15, 1957 at a mid-span ceremony attended by some 3,500 citizens. The following morning the DRPA opened it to traffic with a 25-cent toll.
Two years later, on June 1, 1959, officials gathered on a grassy patch at Packer Avenue and Broad Street to dedicate a larger-than-life bronze statue of a striding Whitman by sculptor Jo Davidson. “I wanted Walt “‘afoot and lighthearted,’” wrote Davidson, quoting from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” But in this case, the “open road” would be an on-ramp for six-lanes of bridge-bound traffic crossing the Delaware a mile a minute, 150-feet above the rippling, brackish current so familiar to Whitman.
[Sources: Marc Stein, City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 (Temple University Press, 2004); The Delaware River Port Authority (chronology). In chronological order: Edgar Williams, The Bridge Without a Name, Today Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 1954; “Catholics Decry Whitman Bridge,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 1955; “Gloucester City Claims Bridge as Own,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 8, 1956; “Bridge is Opened at Philadelphia,” The New York Times, May 16, 1957; “Whitman Statue Dedication Set,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 29, 1959; Joann P. Krieg, “Democracy in Action: Naming the Bridge for Walt Whitman,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 12, no. 2 (1994) pp. 108-114. Special thanks to Bob Skiba.]