Good Gray Poet
Walt and Pete
Peter Doyle was the ex-Confederate soldier and streetcar conductor
who became Whitman's intimate friend in Washington. The two kept
in touch until the last years of Whitman's life. They met one stormy
night in 1865 when Whitman was the last passenger on Doyle's car.
To Pete, the poet looked "like an old sea-captain." We were familiar
at once," Pete recalled of the meeting, "I put my hand on his knee--we
understood . . . from that time on we were the biggest sort of
friends." Walt described his companion as a "divinely generous
working man . . . the salt of the earth." Their studio photograph
is the first extant of Whitman with another person. The wisp of
Whitman's hair is from a lock cut on his deathbed and shared with
M.P. Rice, photographer
"Washington, D.C., 1865-- Walt Whitman & his
rebel soldier friend Pete Doyle"
Albumen print, ca. 1865
Digital ID# ppmsca-07387
Prints & Photographs Division (39a)
Revising the Friendship
Whitman wrote to Peter Doyle often when on leave from his Washington
civil service work, as in this August 21, 1869, letter from his
mother's home in Brooklyn. Whitman discusses his friend's health
problems and refers to a misunderstanding between them but includes
an array of affectionate terms. In a notebook a year later, Whitman
replaced Doyle's initials with the code 16.4 and the barely legible "him" with "her" in
vowing to fight his overly close "adhesiveness" in this friendship.
This entry has been interpreted as the best proof of Whitman's
Singing the Body Electric
Among the most controversial of Whitman's poems were those of
the "Children of Adam"(Enfans d'Adam) and "Calamus" clusters.
These poems unabashedly celebrated sexuality. The first dealt especially
with heterosexual love, known as "amativeness" in the nineteenth
century; the latter focused on "adhesiveness," or "manly" love.
Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson tried to dissuade Whitman from printing "Children
of Adam" poems in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman
made "I Sing the Body Electric," first published untitled in the
1855 edition, part of the Enfans d'Adam cluster in 1860.
The Calamus cluster was named for the phallic-like calamus plant
(also known as "sweet flag") that grew in wetlands and was used
for medicinal purposes as a stimulant.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
["I Sing the Body Electric"] from Enfans d'Adam (Children
of Adam) poems in Leaves of Grass.
Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860
Rare Book & Special Collections
"The Good Gray Poet"
Walt Whitman worked at three government jobs in his time in Washington.
In 1865, he was fired as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs
by Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, who found Leaves
of Grass to be indecent. Whitman's great friend William Douglas
O'Connor responded twofold. He arranged for a new job for Whitman
in the Attorney General's Office, and he published The Good
Gray Poet: A Vindication. The pamphlet defended the poet,
put a positive spin on his notoriety, and successfully created
a whole new benevolent image for Whitman.
Whitman and the Butterfly
This photograph, taken in 1877, was one of Whitman's favorites.
He used the butterfly-on-hand as a recurring motif in his books
and intended for this photo to be reproduced as the frontispiece
in this sample proof of Leaves from 1891. To foster the
image of himself as one with nature, he claimed that insect was
real and one of his "good friends." But a band visible around Whitman's
finger matches the wire under the butterfly artifact (above).
This colorful cardboard prop was tucked into one of the first Whitman
notebooks donated to the Library in 1918. The word "Easter" is
printed down its spine. Dr. Bucke, one of his literary heirs, said
the butterfly was Psyche, the poet's soul.
W. Curtis Taylor (Broadbent & Taylor), photographer
"Whitman with butterfly, 1877,"
Albumen photograph frontispiece in sample proof of Leaves of Grass,
Rare Book & Special Collections
The British Connection
British intellectuals Anne Gilchrist and William Rossetti were
key patrons who promoted Whitman's poetry in Great Britain. Each
provided him with much needed support. Gilchrist's A Woman's
Estimate of Walt Whitman (1870) was the first great review
of Leaves of Grass. Early on she was thwarted in her hopes
for a love relationship with Whitman. When she came to live in
Philadelphia between 1876 and 1878, the two became fast friends,
and Whitman was a frequent guest in her home. Rossetti compiled
British editions of Whitman's poems in 1868 and 1886 and sold his
work by subscription.
Misses Davison Royal Polytechnic Studio, London
Anne Burrows Gilchrist
Carte de visite, ca. 1871
Prints & Photographs Division (45b)
In 1881-1882, a new edition of Leaves of Grass was censored
in Boston. The District Attorney's Office threatened prosecution
on obscenity charges if extensive changes were not made. Whitman's
publisher, Osgood and Co., succumbed to pressure and ceased distribution
of the book. William O'Connor flew to the rescue, writing of his
outrage to the naturalist John Burroughs, another of Whitman's
close friends. O'Connor created such a furor of publicity that
sales of Leaves surged when the book was remarketed by
firms in Philadelphia.
Whitman and Oscar Wilde
In January and May 1882 the Irish writer Oscar Wilde visited
Whitman at his home in Camden, New Jersey. He told the poet that
his mother had read Leaves of Grass to him as a child,
and that his Oxford friends carried the book with them on their
strolls. Whitman was delighted with Wilde, whom he described as "a
fine large handsome youngster." Wilde, in America on a lecture
tour, sent a portrait taken at the New York studio of Napoleon
Sarony to Whitman as a keepsake. Wilde was one of the many artists
and intellectuals who made pilgrimages to Whitman's door in the
poet's later years.
Bartlett F. Kenney, photographer
Albumen print, 1881
Digital ID# ppmsca-07389
Prints & Photographs Division (53)