An Affair to Remember

Peter Doyle’s lifelong love of Walt Whitman.

By Mark Segal 

Photo courtesy Gay History Project

Walt Whitman (l) and his rebel soldier friend Pete Doyle in 1865.

Walt Whitman, best known as the father of modern poetry and American poetry, was also the longtime lover of Peter Doyle, son of a blacksmith, a former Rebel soldier who worked as a streetcar conductor. They were often affectionate in public; both their families, and all Whitman’s friends, knew about their relationship. Doyle was a conspicuous influence on many of Whitman’s works.

The couple first met on a Washington, DC, streetcar in 1865, on a stormy winter night toward the close of the Civil War. Whitman was 45; Doyle, 21. Doyle thought his bearded, only passenger, a blanket over his shoulders, looked “like an old sea captain.”

“I thought I would go and talk to him,” Doyle said in an interview. “Something in me made me do it. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him…. We were familiar at once. I put my hand on his knee…. From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends.”

Whitman was a burly six feet tall; Doyle, a slender five foot eight. Their differences extended beyond the physical. Whitman was a government clerk, journalist, and a published poet; Doyle, a working man supporting his widowed mother and younger siblings. Whitman prided himself on patriotism; his brother, George, was a Union soldier, and he’d spent the last two years nursing the wounded in Washington’s army hospitals. Doyle had been a Confederate artilleryman, who’d obtained release from federal prison by claiming to be a British subject (born in Limerick, Ireland, he and his family emigrated there when he was a child). Pete and Walt were living proof that opposites attract.

They were a familiar sight on Washington streetcars and at the bar in Georgetown’s Union Hotel. A favorite pastime was to hike along the Potomac River in Maryland, take the ferry to Virginia, and then hike back along the river on the Virginia side.

They were unable to live together due to Pete’s obligations to his dependent family, though Walt wanted to settle down with Pete and brought it up repeatedly. But each man was warmly embraced by the other’s family. Pete would fondly recall dinners at the Whitmans’: “After we had our dinner, she [Walt’s mother] would always say, ‘Now take a long walk to aid digestion.’ Mrs. Whitman was a lovely woman.” After Whitman’s first stroke in 1873, his mother wrote to Walt to express her confidence in Pete: “I knew if it was in his power, he would cheerfully do everything he could for you.” Pete lived up to her expectations, nursing Walt for months. The Doyles also counted on Walt for whatever help he could offer, including recommending Pete’s brother Edward for a job with the Treasury Department and lobbying newspapers to protect Pete’s older brother, policeman Francis, from sensationalized accounts of brutality. Walt considered Pete’s family—mother Catherine; older brothers James and Francis; younger brother Edward; and sister Margaret—who lived with Pete, dear friends.

Doyle would have a lasting impact on Whitman’s work. For one thing, Doyle, who was present at Lincoln’s assassination, would shape Whitman’s writings about that tragic event. Doyle had gone to the performance of My American Cousin in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, because he’d heard the Lincolns would be there. He heard the shot and saw John Wilkes Booth leap from Lincoln’s box to the stage, but didn’t know Lincoln was dead until he heard Mary Todd Lincoln cry out, “The president has been shot!” He was so stunned that he was one of the last to leave the theater, ordered out by a policeman.

Lincoln had been one of Walt’s heroes, though they had never met. Walt, a friend of the president’s former secretary, John Hay, had seen Lincoln in person numerous times. He’d written, “I never see the man without feeling that he is one to become personally attached to.” Walt would use Pete’s account in Specimen Days, Memoranda During the War, and lectures.

Pete also affected Whitman’s most popular Lincoln poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” Doyle came to America with his mother and three brothers on the William Patten in 1852; the ship nearly wrecked in a storm on Good Friday, also the day of Lincoln’s assassination. Whitman knew this. The poem memorializes Lincoln as a ship’s captain, who died while guiding his vessel safely to port through a storm. The poem, unlike most of Whitman’s, is metered and rhymed. During their walks, Doyle would often quote limericks to Whitman; the poem’s extant first draft is in free verse, so he likely revised it to impress Doyle. Another poem written around the same time, “Come Up from the Fields Father,” is the only time Whitman ever identified a protagonist with a personal name—Pete.

Pete could not have inspired “Calamus,” the notorious series of homoerotic poems published in 1860.  (The controversial poems had gotten Whitman fired from his Department of the Interior job, but well-connected Walt quickly got a similar job in the Attorney General’s office.) Doyle did, however, affect Whitman’s decision to excise three of these poems from the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. The three expressed despair over Whitman’s earlier failed relationship with another Irishman, Fred Vaughan, who married after splitting from him.

Pete also figured prominently in Walt’s private notebooks, particularly passages cited by some scholars as the most convincing proof of Whitman’s gay sexuality. In the summer of 1870, Whitman began to suspect that Pete did not return his love. He wrote feverishly, vowing “TO GIVE UP ABSOLUTELY … this … USELESS UNDIGNIFIED PURSUIT OF 16.4.” Sixteen and four are the numeric locations of the initials P.D. in the alphabet. Walt also obviously later erased the “im” in “him” and replaced it with “er” in these entries.

But before Walt left to visit his family later that summer, Pete confessed his love, ending Walt’s ambivalence. In a July 30 letter, Walt enthused, “I never dreamed that you made so much of having me with you, nor that you should feel so downcast at losing me.” Soon afterward, when Pete griped about his job, Walt wrote promising “a good smacking kiss, many of them—taking in return many, many from my dear son—good loving ones too.”

Their relationship remained intense during Walt’s years in Washington. But Walt suffered a stroke in 1873, which impaired his left arm and leg. He went to live with his brother, George, in Camden, N.J., considering the arrangement temporary. Walt’s beloved mother died that same year, taking an emotional toll on him. Pete was by now working a dangerous, stressful job, as brakeman, for the Pennsylvania Railroad, but would still visit Walt daily before his evening shift, nursing him while there. Walt took the precaution of making out a will, in which Pete was the only non-family member included. In 1874, Walt forfeited his Washington job, and broke the news to Pete that his move to Camden would be permanent. In 1875 another stroke affected Walt’s right side.

For the next two decades, Pete and Walt continued to correspond, and Pete continued to visit regularly, but they began to see less of each other. In 1876, Walt met another working-class youth, Harry Stafford, a Camden New Republic office clerk in his 20s. Harry became Walt’s new “darling boy.” Stafford’s parents considered Walt a “good influence.” Whitman began to spend time at the family’s farm near Timber Creek, about 10 miles from Camden.  Walt’s letters told Pete about the farm, but not about Harry. Like Fred Vaughan before him, Harry would marry in 1884, but he and Walt would remain friends.

After Pete’s mother, Catherine, passed away in 1885, Pete relocated to Philadelphia. Though Pete and Walt remained in touch till 1889, no correspondence exists from between 1881 and 1886, as they saw each other frequently.

In 1888, Walt suffered another stroke and became severely ill. He would live four more years, during which he would publish “November Boughs,” “Goodbye My Fancy,” and the so-called “Deathbed Edition” of Leaves of Grass. Pete would be mysteriously absent for most of this time. Whitman speculated to friend Horace Traubel that Pete “must have got another lay.” On New Year’s Day, 1892, Walt revised his will to exclude Pete, whom he presumed was dead. But before Walt passed, Pete did visit him again and explained the reasons for his absence.

In an interview, Pete recalled, “In the old days I had always open doors to Walt—going, coming, staying as I chose. Now, I had to run the gauntlet of Mrs. Davis (Walt’s housekeeper at his own new Mickle Street home) and a nurse and whatnot…. Then I had a mad impulse to go over and nurse him. I was his proper nurse; he understood me, I understood him. We loved each other deeply…. I should have gone to see him, at least, in spite of everything. I know it now … but it’s all right. Walt realized I never swerved from him—he knows it now. That is enough.”

Walt, 73, died of tuberculosis on March 26, 1892. Pete viewed the body and attended the funeral. He remained part of Walt’s surviving circle of friends until his own passing at 63 in 1907 from uremia (kidney disease).

The most substantial documentation of their relationship is a collection of letters Walt sent to Pete from 1868–1880, published in 1897 by their mutual friend, psychiatrist and author Richard Maurice Bucke, as “The Calamus Letters.” “Calamus” poems are interspersed between letters in the book. The book included Bucke’s revealing interview with Doyle, which Henry James in his 1898 review would call “the most charming passage in the volume.”

From Doyle’s interview with Bucke, conducted after Whitman’s death:

“I have Walt’s raglan here. Now and then I put it on, lay down…. Then he is with me again…. I do not ever for a minute lose the old man. He is always nearby…. In a crisis, I ask myself, ‘What would Walt do?’—and whatever I decide Walt would do, that I do.”

Mark Segal is the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and the founder and coordinator of the Gay History Project.


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