Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

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 friends.

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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 homosexual inclinations.

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Singing the Body Electric

Among the most controversial of Whitman's poems were those of the “Children of Adam”(Enfans d'Adam) and &lrdquo;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 Division, Library of Congress (42)


“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.

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  • Attorney General's Office. “Appointment of Walt Whitman as 3rd Class Clerk; Treasury Department, Washington, D.C.,”. November 13, 1866. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (44)

  • William Douglas O'Connor (1832-1889). The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication. New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1866. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (43)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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