May 31, 1819– Walt Whitman:
“Resist much, obey little.”
When I write about individuals from before the 20th century that happen to have been homosexual, I usually avoid using the term “Gay”. Because there really was no Gay before the 20th century… until I consider Walt Whitman. Whitman really was Gay, using the whole 20th/21st century definition.
Has there ever been a poet so thoroughly American as Whitman? His book of verse, Leaves Of Grass (1855), holds the essence of being an American. It also reflects on the ways in which our country’s ideals have been forsaken. Whitman’s personal life suffered much because of our American Puritan taboos against sex.
For too many people, and you know who I mean, Whitman is also the USA’s biggest embarrassment. He writes that for our democracy to be true, the American ideal of universal equality must embrace gay people. Whitman is a subversive and radical poet. American school children for the past 60 years have been carefully protected from exposure to him. I did not read Whitman until I was finished with college, when my mother, of all people, gave me a volume of Leaves Of Grass as a gift.
A leaf for hand in hand;
You natural persons old and young!
You on the Mississippi and on all the branches and bayous of the Mississippi!
You friendly boatmen and mechanics! You roughs!
You twain! And all processions moving along the streets!
I wish to infuse myself among you till I see it common for you to walk hand in hand.
I identify as bohemian, but Whitman was a true bohemian. He never gave into having a regular occupation and he was a singularly solitary man. Probably, not by choice.
Whitman was born on Long Island in NY. He did the usual boy things until he was 11-years-old, when he quit school. He ran errands for a lawyer and a doctor, and then became an apprentice typesetter for a Brooklyn newspaper.
He then taught school in several small villages while contributing articles to various periodicals. In 1984, he left country life for the big city. In NYC, he worked for newspapers, starting as a typesetter and then working his way up to reporter, feature writer and eventually an editor. Whitman also took to a life of enjoying theatre, cafes and nightclubs. He went to art exhibitions, museum openings and the opera. He watched the ships come into the harbor and walked among the people of the great city. He had a habit of sitting near the hot, rugged carriage drivers. He crossed back and forth on the Brooklyn ferry to gaze at the deck hands. Because he was repressing his gayness, he felt alone in the crowd. He liked to watch.
Sometime after 1855, when Leaves Of Grass was first published, Whitman experienced a kind of emotional/spiritual crisis that transformed him from a really good newspaper man to an extraordinary poet. In the manner of so many gay men in NYC and San Francisco in late 1970s, he gave up being a dandy and he became a butch clone.
Nowadays, if Whitman is taught in our schools as part of the canon of American literature, there is still much resistance to identifying him as gay. Maybe, because of passages like this:
I share the midnight orgies of young men
I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate, he shall be condemned by others for deeds done
I will play a part no longer, why should I exile myself from my companions?
When the Civil War began in 1861, Whitman moved to Washington DC to volunteer as a nurse for injured Union soldiers. He made his living during this period by working as a clerk for the federal government.
Whitman met young handsome Irish-American Peter Doyle in 1865 when the older poet boarded a streetcar with Doyle working as the conductor. Doyle:
“He was the only passenger; it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Something in me made me do it. He used to say there was something in me that had the same effect on him. We were familiar at once. I put my hand on his knee… we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip, in fact he went all the way back with me.”
Whitman stayed on that streetcar until Doyle ended his shift and the two men then spent their first night together.
The men had a committed relationship. and 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. The two men would have to get a hotel room or brave sneaking into Whitman’s room at a boardinghouse to be together.
For the next two decades, Whitman and Doyle would be a couple and they spent as much time in each other’s company as possible. Whitman wrote this about Doyle:
“He is a hearty full-blooded everyday divinely generous working man: a hail-fellow-well-met.”
Falling in love had a powerful impact on Whitman’s writing. Doyle became the poet’s muse. When they were apart, the two men would write each other daily. In their correspondence, they spoke of their love for each other. In one letter, Whitman wrote Doyle: “I think of you very often. My love for you is indestructible. I don’t know what I should do if I hadn’t you to think of and look forward to.”
The missives include this passage:
“All I have to say is to say nothing, only a good smacking kiss, and many of them, taking in return many, many, many from my dear, good loving ones too.”
In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke. He then had to move in with his family in Camden, NJ, so they could take care of him.
Doyle tried, but failed to find a job in Camden. He made frequent journeys from DC to be with his ailing lover. Sadly, the two men were never able to live together. They did, however, continue to correspond and visit with each other, and sometimes traveled together.
As the years passed, Whitman continued to revise Leaves Of Grass, with the 1882 version becoming the most significant. That edition was released by a prominent Boston publisher. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts declared the book obscene because of its references to same-sex love, birthing the term: “Banned in Boston”.
The obscenity charges brought world-wide attention, and of course Leaves Of Grass sold even more copies, becoming a bestseller. Whitman emerged from the controversy rich and famous. How American is that?
Whitman’s health began to really slip in the late 1880s, and he went into a coma in early 1892. He was taken by emphysema when he was 73 years old. Doyle was among the mourners at the funeral.
The USA’s major newspapers published lengthy obituaries and tributes to Whitman. The Washington Post called him: “A poet for all humanity” and the New York Times lauded him as a literary figure: “Who had the courage to speak out”. But none of the obituaries made any reference to Peter Doyle.
Doyle died in 1906, taken by kidney disease when he was just 63-years-old. The brief death notices that appeared in Washington DC newspapers didn’t mention his relationship with Whitman.
America’s unfortunate Secretary Of Education, Betsy “Boom-Boom” DeVoss has acknowledged support for removing references to Gay History from the curriculum of public schools. Of course, she then plans to get rid of public education all together, and I don’t think they plan to teach Walt Whitman at Michael Richard Pence High School.
I recommend the excellent and very readable: Walt Whitman: A Gay Life (1997) by Gary Schmidgall.