Many literary scholars rank Walt Whitman as this country’s most influential poet. He’s widely referred to as the father of free verse and the man who liberated poetry from rhyme.
Scholars have, by contrast, paid little attention to Whitman’s long-time partner, Peter Doyle.
In fact, though, it can be argued that Whitman wouldn’t have risen to his lofty stature if Doyle hadn’t become his muse. Doyle inspired some of his partner’s best-known works and also caused the tone of Whitman’s poetry to become more optimistic.
Walt Whitman was born on Long Island in 1819 and self-published the first edition of his collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. Critics condemned the book, one writing for the Boston Intelligencer, for example, speculated that the author must be “some escaped lunatic, raving in pitiable delirium.”
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Whitman moved to Washington, D.C., to volunteer as a civilian nurse for injured Union soldiers. He made his living during this period by working as a clerk for the federal government.
Peter Doyle was born in Limerick City, Ireland, in 1843. When Pete was eight years old, his family moved to the United States, settling in northern Virginia just a few miles south of the nation’s capital.
Whitman and Doyle met in 1865 when the older man boarded the horse-drawn streetcar where the younger man worked as a conductor. “He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him,” Doyle later recalled of that first encounter. “Something in me made me do it. He used to say there was something in me that had the same effect on him.”
According to Doyle’s account, the two men made physical contact within a matter of minutes after they’d met. “We were familiar at once—I put my hand on his knee—we understood,” Doyle said. “He did not get out at the end of the trip—in fact went all the way back with me.”
Whitman going “all the way back with me” meant that the poet stayed on the streetcar until Doyle ended his shift and the two men then spent their first night together. Doyle recalled, “It was our practice to go to a hotel on Washington Avenue after I was done with my car.”
Despite the men having a committed relationship, family circumstances kept them from moving in together. Whitman wanted them to live as a couple, but Doyle thought it was his duty, as the oldest unmarried son, to live with and care for his widowed mother in the house he rented for them just across the Potomac River from Washington.
And so, Whitman had to be satisfied with spending most nights with Doyle, either at the hotel or at the poet’s rooming house, while the two men maintained separate residences.
Beginning the night they met and continuing for the next eight years, Whitman and Doyle were inseparable. The poet wrote his friends about Doyle, describing the younger man as a “hearty full-blooded everyday divinely generous working man: a hail-fellow-well-met.” Flattered by such words, the high-spirited Doyle took to calling himself “Pete the Great.”
Whitman falling in love had a powerful impact on his writing. Literary scholars have identified several poems—and specific lines from many others—that they attribute to Doyle having become the poet’s muse.
The most famous of the works credited to Whitman’s relationship with Doyle is his tribute to Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” Scholars say Whitman wrote the piece largely because “Pete the Great” had been an eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.
A second poem that shows Doyle’s influence is “Come Up from the Fields Father.” The work is unique among the hundreds that Whitman created in that it’s the only one that uses a first name—“Pete”—to identify a fictional hero.
More evidence of Doyle inspiring Whitman can be found in works that appeared in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, the first published after the men began their outlaw marriage. Among the specific lines that scholars point to is one about an old soldier burying his “son of responding kisses”—the old soldier is thought to be Whitman, while the son who’s being kissed is Doyle. Another line that scholars cite is one that tells of a young man being valued “more than all the gifts of the world”—the phrasing speaks to Whitman’s love for Doyle being more important to him than worldly goods.
For some scholars, the strongest impact of the relationship is found in the works Whitman deleted from the 1867 edition. That is, Whitman removed a number of poems that had appeared in the previous edition and that critics characterize as expressing the poet’s earlier “self-doubt and despair.” They say that Whitman eliminated these works because he’d now found the love of his life and therefore was in a “more optimistic mood.” In the words of one scholar, “Walt’s new-found confidence in love was, in large measure, a result of his satisfying relationship with Pete.”
Whitman and Doyle began writing to each other in 1868, the first time they were apart after beginning their outlaw marriage. The men were separated because Whitman was visiting his family in New York, while “Pete the Great” had to stay in Washington to work. Their correspondence continued, off and on whenever they were apart, for two decades.
Whitman began his letters with the words “My darling” and ended them with phrases such as “Love to you, my dearest boy” or “So long, dear Pete—& my love to you as always.” Doyle often ended his letters by writing “Pete X X,” with the X’s representing kisses that he sent his partner.
In the correspondence, the men often spoke of their love for each other. In one letter, Whitman told Doyle, “I think of you very often. My love for you is indestructible,” and in another he wrote, “I don’t know what I should do if I hadn’t you to think of & look forward to.”
Many letters included passages in which Whitman talked about physical contact with his young lover. In one instance, the older man wrote, “All I have to say is—to say nothing—only a good smacking kiss, & many of them—& taking in return many, many, many from my dear son—good loving ones too.”
In 1873, Whitman’s suffered a debilitating stroke. He then had to move in with his brother and sister-in-law in Camden, New Jersey, so they could take care of him.
“Pete the Great” was determined to keep the outlaw marriage a central part of his life, attempting—but failing—to find a job in Camden. So he made frequent journeys—sometimes two or three weekends in a row—to see his ailing partner. After one trip, Whitman wrote gleefully to a friend, “Peter Doyle has paid me a short visit of a couple of days—the dear, dear boy—& what good it did me!”
Unfortunately, the two men were never able to live together. They did, however, continue to correspond and visit with each other, as well as sometimes vacationing together.
As the years passed, Whitman continued to revise Leaves of Grass, with the version dated 1882 ultimately becoming the most significant. That edition was published by a prominent Boston firm. Massachusetts state officials soon declared the book obscene because of its references to same-sex love.
The obscenity charge attracted national attention, resulting in a plethora of flattering reviews—the Chicago Tribune, for example, called the book “brilliant” and “remarkable.” From that point on, Leaves of Grass sold extremely well and, in the words of one biographer, “Whitman emerged from the controversy well paid and famous.”
The poet’s health deteriorated by the late 1880s, and he lapsed into a coma in early 1892. The seventy-three-year-old poet remained in this condition until he died of emphysema. Doyle was among the mourners who stood over the body as Whitman was buried in Camden.
America’s major newspapers published lengthy obituaries and tributes to Whitman. The Washington Post called him “a poet for humanity,” and the New York Times lauded him as a literary figure who “had the courage to speak out.” None of the articles made any reference either to the poet’s homosexuality or to Peter Doyle.
“Pete the Great” contracted kidney disease in early 1907. He died later that year, at the age of sixty-three. The brief death notice that appeared in a Washington newspaper didn’t mention his homosexuality or Walt Whitman.
By Rodger Streitmatter
This article is a shortened version of the first chapter in the author’s forthcoming book, Outlaw Marriages ~ The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples. The book is scheduled to be published by Beacon Press in May 2012.
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