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.