“Many literary scholars consider Walt Whitman [the United States of America]’s most influential poet. Widely referred to as the father of free verse, he liberated poetry from rhyme and meter, opening it up to the flexible rhythms of feeling and voice. The works collected in Leaves of Grass pay homage to the freedom and dignity of the individual while celebrating democracy and the brotherhood of man, even though early critics condemned his references to same-sex love as being obscene.
Peter Doyle was a 21-year-old conductor on a horse-drawn streetcar when he and Whitman, who was at the time, began their romantic relationship. During their quarter-century marriage, Doyle became Whitman’s muse…
Despite the men being attracted to each other, family circumstances kept them from living together. Whitman repeatedly told his young partner that he wanted them to set up housekeeping as a couple, but Doyle insisted that it was his duty, as the oldest unmarried son, to live with and care for his widowed mother. And so, Whitman had to be satisfied with spending most nights with Doyle, either at a hotel or at the poet’s rooming house, while the two maintained separate residences.”
So this handsome fellow is Peter Doyle, longtime partner of the great American poet Walt Whitman. He is often viewed as an enigmatic figure, but what we do know about him tells us that he was quite remarkable in his own right.
Pete was born in Limerick, Ireland, and came to the United States with his family when he was eight years old. After the death of his father, he worked hard to support his widowed mother and siblings. One of his brothers, Francis, became a police officer in Washington DC, where the family lived. Francis ended up fighting for the Union during the Civil War, while Pete served in the Confederate Army. He saw serious action and was wounded, discharged from the army, and promptly arrested when he attempted to go back to DC. He managed to get off the hook by claiming that, as an Irish immigrant, he really didn’t care one way or the other about Union versus Confederacy. True or not, this worked, and he was freed.
It was at this point that Pete took a job as a horsecar conductor. In the nearly empty streetcar, on a stormy night in early 1865, Pete met Walt Whitman. Pete as 21 at the time, while Walt was 45. According to the younger man, it was pretty much love at first sight. “We understood,” Pete said. Walt was the only passenger on the streetcar, and he didn’t get off at his planned stop. Instead, he rode with Pete until the end of the route, at which point the two men spent their first night together.
They were inseparable for the next seven or eight years. They’d often go for long walks together, with Walt reciting poetry or passages from Shakespeare. I am 100% not making this up.
And their letters. Oh my God, their letters. Not many of Pete’s to Walt survive, but Walt’s to Pete are so full of love that they’d melt the coldest heart. A sample quote: “My darling, if you are not well when I come back I will get a good room or two in some quiet place, and we will live together and devote ourselves altogether to the job of curing you, and making you stronger and healthier than ever. I have had this in my mind before but never broached it to you.”
As this excerpt implies, Walt very much wanted to make a home with his young partner. Sadly, this would never be possible. Pete, as the oldest unmarried son, saw it as his duty to provide for his mother and siblings. They – and the society in which they lived – had certain expectations. While Walt was on good terms with Pete’s family, getting them to accept wholeheartedly this same-sex relationship was an entirely different matter. The two men had to do with spending nights together.
Pete was definitely a tremendously positive influence on Walt and his work. He persuaded Walt to delete three poems dealing with themes of despair and unrequited love from the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. He may have also influenced one of his partner’s best-known works, “O Captain! My Captain!” The tone deals with the death of Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War. It is unusual amongst Whitman’s works because it is rhymed, rather than written in free verse. Walt noted that Pete had quite the rhyming ability, often rattling off charming limericks. Also, some have argued that the metaphor of the ship on the rough sea is a kind of nod to Pete’s immigrant background.
The young immigrant was also an eyewitness to the greatest tragedy of the day. He was in the balcony of Ford’s theater on the night of April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was assassinated. He recounted hearing the shot, and then seeing Booth leap onto the stage. Later, Walt drew on this account as a source of information for his annual Lincoln lectures. And he wouldn’t have heard any of it, if it weren’t for his boyfriend!
Walt suffered a stroke in 1873, and moved to Camden, New Jersey, to live with his brother. He ended staying there until his death in 1892. Pete was unable to find work in Camden, though he did eventually get a job in Philadelphia. They saw each other only sporadically, and at one point Walt had gone so long without hearing from Pete that he thought the younger man had died. He hadn’t, but he was put off by the presence of a housekeeper and other caretakers in his partner’s house. He stayed away, for fear of rousing suspicion as to the true nature of the relationship. After Walt’s death, Pete expressed regret for his hesitation.
In 1897, Pete allowed Richard Maurice Bucke (Walt’s literary executor) to publish the letters written by Walt to Pete. The result was a book called Calamus. No one who read it would have any doubts as to the nature of the love between these two men. It made Pete the black sheep of his Catholic family, and his sister forbade the reading of the book in her house. I think we have to give the man some serious props here. It had to take a hell of a lot of courage to let something like that hit the presses in the 19th century. Maybe he was proud of himself, his partner, and their relationship, and saw no shame or sinfulness in any of it. I sincerely hope that this was the case, and that there was an element of defiance of social and religious norms that went into the publication of Calamus.
Pete remained a member of the “inner circle” of Whitman devotees until his own death in 1907. He is buried in DC’s Congressional Cemetery. His grave marker is a short walk from that of Leonard Matlovich, which famously reads, “they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.” Nowadays, Peter Doyle is usually included on history tours of the cemetery which focus on LGBT figures.
Excellent work has been done by Whitman scholars in order to rescue Pete from the shadows of history. We are beginning to understand just how much he influenced Walt, and what a fascinating man he is. “Pete the Great,” as he liked to call himself, is an enigma no more.
And now, to finish off this already very long post, a quick guide to the photos:
Top: Pete aged about 25 years, taken in 1868. Cool hat.
Middle: Pete aged 57, taken circa 1900. Cool mustache.
Bottom: Pete and Walt, circa 1868, ridiculously in love. This might be my favorite historical photograph of all time.
From Beacon Press, a charming history of devotion: Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden History of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples, by Rodger Streitmatter. Among the couples featured: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, and James Ivory and Ismail Merchant.
vermillionlove said: Speaking of which… have you heard anything about Peter Doyle’s condition? I saw that he had cancer, but no updates on how he is doing these days.
I’ve looked online the past few years without seeing a mention of the results (though I hoped for the best since there wasn’t any news I saw on his condition worsening) but I did get the chance to tweet Yuri Lowenthal recently as he helped host the fundraiser!
The first extant photo of Whitman with Peter Doyle, Whitman’s close friend and companion in Washington. Doyle was a horsecar driver and met Whitman one stormy night in 1865 when Whitman, looking [as Doyle said] “like an old sea-captain,” remained the only passenger on Doyle’s car. They were inseparable for the next eight years.
More from Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century
1) The distinction between public vs. private expression was very important for people who were gay. In private correspondence, many men were able to indulge their “unabashed” homosexuality (i.e. write love letters); in public, often these same men were married or engaged or supposed to be in love with women. Some of these letters (amazingly) survive – yet how many have been lost to fire or sunk in the sea, we’ll never know.
2) Fear of literature or art being labeled as homosexual was a worry for many. Naturally, writers and artists were frustrated with the limitations that this ridiculous fear put on their work. In 1896, one man questioned, “So now every tragic character will be forced to encumber himself with a woman for fear of being taxed with homosexual inclinations?” Hence, writing in female love interests or… wives.
3) Peter Doyle, the love of Walt Whitman’s life, said this of their meeting:
“We felt to each other at once. […] Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. […] We were familiar at once - I put my hand on his knee - we understood.”
4) Paging @heimishtheidealhusband! A man called Edmund Gosse, when describing the experience of being gay and closeted, compared it to imagery associated with the Gothic horror story – a setting/concept more people could understand.
5) Surprise! The words “abominable” and “martyrs” show up a lot – like a lot, a lot – in descriptive language associated with homosexuality and the struggle for recognition, safety, and acceptance.
6) Does anyone remember which ACD story this quote is from?
They lived together and seldom parted. […] A subtle fire ran through their veins at every accidental touch. Whenever they caught sight of one another unexpectedly, they were filled with inexplicable rapture. They stayed up all night together, and when the grey light of dawn forced them to seek the rest that the excited mind refused the exhausted body, their farewells continued on the doorstep in conversations that lasted hours. […]
No? Perhaps because it’s from Venus Urania (1798) by Friedrich von Ramdohr. It told the bitter-sweet tale of two men who met in a famous German
academy. Sadly, it ends with them realising they’re in love with each other – including both manifesting the “crude symptoms of physical sexual sympathy” (hint hint) during an embrace. They force themselves apart and settle for a tender respect, with more distance, in their relationship.
Did ACD ever read this book? Who knows. What we do know is that whenever it was told, the traditional story of two men who obviously love each other usually seemed to end pretty sadly.
Luckily, now we’ve got a story where “the thrill of the chase” and the “blood pumping through your veins” is followed by “just the two of us against the rest of the world” – so maybe this ending won’t turn out to be so sad.
One of the foremost American poets, considered the father of free verse. Born to a large and struggling family in New York, he left school at the age of eleven so he could work and supplement the family income. He filled a number of different jobs at a number of different newspapers, but by his 30s he had decided to become a poet. He self-published his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, with his own savings in 1855, wanting to create a uniting epic for the common American, with himself as the central hero. It was unusual for its use of free verse and its celebration of sensuality and sexuality—many critics immediately dismissed it as obscene. But it had the influential support of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and slowly gained popularity over the years. Whitman’s hopes of uniting the country were dashed when the Civil War began, and he spent most of those years volunteering his every free moment to nurse wounded soldiers. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, he wrote the poems “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” in response. It was shortly after the war that Whitman met the bus conductor Peter Doyle, his close companion for many years and likely his greatest love, though publicly Whitman only ever denied having sexual attraction to men. This conflicts with accounts from Edward Carpenter and Oscar Wilde, both of whom claimed to have slept with him. Many people, then and especially now, point to the almost explicit homosexuality that is conveyed among a variety of sexualities in Leaves of Grass, but it’s hard to know where Whitman drew the line between romantic and physical love. He was constantly expanding the collection, and continued to publish new editions of his most prized work up until his death.