Walt Whiman’s Lover Tells How They Met

Walt Whitman, one of the greatest poets of Americana and author of Leaves of Grass, is now openly acknowledged as homosexual, though the man absolutely denied it (understandably so) during his lifetime.

Peter Doyle was conductor on a railroad and met Whitman in Washington, D.C.. While shying away from any specifics, he admits his close relationship to Whitman during an 1895 interview with Whitman’s literary executors, three years after the poet’s death.

“You ask where I first met him? It is a curious story. We felt to each other at one. I was a conductor. The night was very stormy, – he had been over to see Burroughs before he came down to take the car – the storm was awful. Walt had his blanket – it was thrown round his shoulders- he seemed like an old sea-captain. 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 and something in me had the same effect on him.

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Peter Doyle & Walt Whitman

“Anyway I went into the car. 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 went all the way back with me. I think the year of this was 1866. From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends. I stayed in Washington until 1872, when I went on the Pennsylvania railroad. Walt was then in the Attorney-General’s office. I wuld frequently go out to the Treasury to see Walt; Hubley Ashton [Assistant Attorney General at the time and one of the founders of the American Bar Association] was commonly there- he would be leaning familiarly on the desk where Walt would be writing. They were fast friends – talked a good deal together.

“Walt rode with me often – often at noon, always at night. He rode round with me on the last trip – sometimes rode for several trips. Everybody knew him. He had a way of taking the measure of the driver’s hands – had calf-skin gloves made for them every winter in Georgetown- these gloves were his personal presents to the men. He saluted the men on the other cars as we passed- threw up his hand. They cried to him,

“’Hullo, Walt!’

“And he would reply, ‘Ah there!’ or something like.

“He was welcome always as flowers in May. Everybody appreciated his attentions, he seemed to appreciate our attentions to him. Teach the boys to read, write, or cypher? I never heard of, or saw that. There must be some mistake. He did not make much of what people call learning. But he gave us papers, books, and other such articles too.

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“In his habits he was very temperate. He did not smoke. People seemed to think it odd that he didn’t, for everyone in Washington smoked. But he seemed to have a positive dislike for tobacco. He was a very moderate drinker. You might have thought something different, to see the ruddiness of his complexion – but his complexion had no whiskey in it. We might take a drink or two together- nothing more.

“It was our practice to go to a hotel on Washington Avenue after I was done with my car. I remember the place well – there on the corner. Like as not I would go to sleep – lay my hands on my head on the table. Walt would stay there, wait, watch, keep me undisturbed – would wake me when the hour of closing came. In his eating he was vigorous, had big appetite, but was simple in his tastes, not caring for any great dishes.

“I never knew a case of Walt’s being bothered up by a woman. In fact, he had nothing special to do with any woman except Mrs. O’Connor and Mrs. Burroughs. His disposition was different. Woman in that sense never came into his head. Walt was too clean, he hated anything which was not clean. No trace of any dissipation in him.

“I ought to know about him those years – we were awfully close together. In the afternoon I would go up to the Treasury building and wait for him to get through if he were busy. Then we’d stroll out together, often without any plan, going wherever we happened to get. This occurred days in and out, months running. Towards women, Walt had a good way – he very easily attracted them. But he did that with men, too. And it was an irresistible attraction. I’ve had many tell me – men and women. He had an easy gentle way – the same for all, no matter who they were or what their sex.”

For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 


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