Summer vacation season has arrived with its flood of traffic to and from the Jersey Shore. Walt Whitman's name is mentioned on the radio quite often, but not usually in a positive way. Lanes closed. Traffic jammed. Snarled congestion. It is all about the bridge, of course, not the poet for whom it is named.
On the face of it, the Walt Whitman Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the Philadelphia-Camden region, is a majestic memorial to one of America's most famous poets. The river it spans is a major conduit of maritime ships heading toward the two cities' ports. While it is not as lovely as the Golden Gate, or even its neighboring bridge the Ben Franklin, its sleek, steel lattice of girders and cables is attractive from the distance.
Driving across the bridge is another story. One is bombarded with billboard after billboard advertising various attractions and products. Advertisements flash by one after another like the fast-paced reel of commercials before a movie. Only the tollbooths and road signs break the incessant flow of ads.
Like many native Philadelphians, I knew about the bridge before I became familiar with the poet. But once I became a fan of Walt Whitman himself, I realized that something was missing from the bridge: any real connection with the great writer it supposedly honors. While the Ben Franklin Bridge displays the sculpture Bolt of Lightning … A Memorial to Benjamin Franklin, at the Memorial Plaza near its Philadelphia base, the Whitman Bridge has no such monument.
Sadly, a bit of historical research reveals that the oversight might have been intentional, at least in the beginning. Its name selection in the mid-1950s stirred up a hive of controversy, which no one wanted to revisit.
The naming of the bridge, proposed to connect South Philadelphia with Gloucester City, was a lengthy process involving much public input. In the spring of 1954, the Inquirer held an informal naming contest. Among the suggestions were names of historic persons who lived in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, such as William Penn, Thomas Edison, and Betsy Ross (for whom another bridge would be named much later).
The following year, a naming commission decided to rename what was then called simply the Delaware River Bridge after Franklin and the planned bridge after Whitman. The latter was intended to honor the centennial of Whitman's famed collection of poems Leaves of Grass.
Once the decision was announced, it immediately drew controversy. A petition signed by a number of prominent clerics from the region denounced the naming scheme, condemning Whitman for homoerotic elements in his poetry. The protest was followed by a barrage of mimeographed letters to the Port Authority attacking Whitman's irreverence toward organized religion and supposed immorality in general. Some of them offered alternative, less controversial poets to honor, such as Joyce Kilmer, who wrote "Trees." Whitman scholars, the Philadelphia Ethical Society, and other progressive groups circulated petitions in rebuttal.
Ultimately, the war of petitions ended in a stalemate, the name stuck, and the Walt Whitman Bridge opened on May 16, 1957. Perhaps, though, as a lingering result of the controversy, there has been no movement since then to connect it more firmly with Whitman's legacy.
True, the house in Camden where Whitman spent his later years is now a museum. Whitman is celebrated in other ways, from scholarly organizations promoting his work to schools bearing his name. He is honored during LGBT history month. However, no one would dispute that the bridge gets considerable volume, and is therefore perhaps the most prominent reminder of his name.
Whitman felt a deep connection with water (and nature in general). In his famous poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he wrote about being "refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow." A river bridge offers a great place to reflect on his vivid descriptions of the awesome power of the natural world.
Two years from now, on May 31, 2019, the world will celebrate the bicentennial of Whitman's birth. What an ideal opportunity to honor arguably one of the greatest American poets, who had a profound influence on generations of writers that followed, particularly the Beat movement.
Perhaps a sculpture could be commissioned near the bridge, or at least one of its multitudes of billboards converted to display part of one of his poems. Imagine a child, on a car ride from Philadelphia to Cape May, asking his parents about Whitman and later sitting on the beach perusing a book of Whitman's poetry. Idealistic, perhaps, but one can always dream.