He is the quintessential American writer who produced our most famous book of poetry, "Leaves of Grass." He is ranked with Herman Melville and Mark Twain in the American literary canon. He has been admired by everyone from Andrew Carnegie to Ezra Pound to Harold Bloom. His work inspired the Beat poets 60 years after his death. I presume American schoolchildren still read his Lincoln elegy, "When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom'd." (If not, this is an omission to be remedied.)
Whitman suffered a serious stroke in his early 50s and moved from out of state to his brother's home in Camden, NJ, where he spent the last years of his life and died at age 72 in 1892.
So how does New Jersey celebrate this fine resident?
With a New Jersey Turnpike service area, of course. Here are some photos:
Service areas are useful stops along busy freeways. They are where you go to gas up your car, stretch your legs, use the facilities and buy greasy fast food or ice cream cones for restless children. In New Jersey, these areas are generally well-maintained and run efficiently.
Still, if Walt Whitman were alive today, I don't think he'd be flattered to have his name attached to such a location.
And he is not the only one. Jersey has many others, including these:
Woodrow Wilson, the former New Jersey governor and two-term president, also has an eponymous service area, the one nearest to Princeton University, whose president he was before he began his political career.
Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the US Treasury, is similarly honored. His only journey to New Jersey (that I know of) was a rowboat trip across the Hudson River for a duel with Aaron Burr, who shot Hamilton dead. The Alexander Hamilton Service Area is tastefully located near Weehawken, the site of that event.
Vince Lombardi is known mostly for coaching the dominant Green Bay Packers (in Wisconsin!) in the 1960s, but New Jersey cannot forget that he spent the first eight years of his career teaching and coaching at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, NJ. So he, too, is lauded with a rest area.
The list goes on and on -- Thomas Edison, James Fenimore Cooper, Clara Barton, Grover Cleveland, Molly Pitcher, Joyce Kilmer and others. All fine people. All commemorated with highway service areas.
The New Jersey Turnpike is, like its service areas, a necessary but unlovely part of the Garden State, a traffic-choked section of I-95, the national highway that runs from New England to Florida. It teems with large trucks and many obnoxious drivers.
My guess is that whoever dreamed up the idea to name pike service areas after famous people thought it was a great idea. No doubt he (and I bet it was a he) thought pinning famous names on service areas would class them up a bit. So far it's not working.
I'm pretty sure even Donald Trump, who now mostly licenses his name for big buildings, would not care to have a highway service area named after him.
So is it really an honor to recognize Jersey's most famous citizens in this unfortunate way?