I have always been intrigued by Walt Whitman and feel an especial affinity for him because the house he once lived in, although no longer standing, was diagonally across the street from the building where I work every day. Beyond this personal anecdote, Whitman is intriguing because of the warmth and humanity he exuded. Through his prose he rendered the 620,000 men killed in the war more human. He chronicled what he saw, heard, and smelled in the hospital wards unflinchingly, yet somehow never succumbed to cynicism or despair. The real war, he famously told us, would never get into the books. And yet he never lost his confidence in democracy and the innate wisdom of the American people. These were no small things when so much was falling apart between 1861-1865.
Whitman’s companion of many decades was Peter Doyle. Doyle was a native Irishman, which is somewhat surprising given Whitman’s slight tendencies toward nativism. His family moved to Virginia when he was eight and it was there that the two met years later. Distance and sexual orientation would keep the two from settling together, but they managed a surprisingly open relationship given the time. Doyle was also the muse for many of Whitman’s most famous works.
(Image by M.P. Rice, courtesy Ohio Wesleyan)