Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

The Love of Comrades

The Gay Love Letters of Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Walt Whitman's (18191891) volume of poetry Leaves of Grass, enlarged and refined from 1855 to 1892, foresees the bright promise of America being fulfilled in the love of comrades, which he called "adhesiveness" in opposition to "amativeness" or heterosexual love. For celebrating a reality which included sex, he was branded as an obscene writer throughout his lifetime, though hailed as a prophet by young men, in Europe as well as America, who felt that a new world was dawning. Whitman's first homosexual experience probably occurred during a visit to New Orleans in 1848, described in "Once I pass'd Through A Populous City" (the discovery of the original hand-written manuscript in 1925 shows that he changed "he" to "she" before publishing the poem), and the second experience was in 185859 with a young man with the initial "M" who did not reciprocate his love, but who nevertheless inspired the important Calamus cluster of poems in the 1860 edition, wherein Whitman "came out" poetically: "I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me, / I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires. / I will give them complete abandonment, / I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love." He was taken aback by the public reaction, and spent most of his remaining years changing pronouns, suppressing passages, and deleting whole poems from later editions. When John Addington Symonds in 1890 wrote a letter demanding to know whether or not adhesiveness involved homosexuality, he flew into a panic and claimed to have sired six illegitimate children – none of which has been traced by industrious American scholars. Because Whitman is part of the canon of American literature taught in the classrooms, there is still much resistance to labelling him gay, despite evidence such as the fairly well documented story that he fellated a fourteen-year-old lad who grew up to become a lawyer in Chicago. Edward Carpenter, who visited Whitman in 1877 and is said to have slept with him (testimony from Gavin Arthur, who slept with Carpenter), explained why Whitman could not openly declare himself: "He knew that the moment he said such a thing he would have the whole American Press at his heels, snarling and slandering, and distorting his words in every possible way." Whitman's best-known comrade was the street car conductor Peter Doyle, whom he met in Washington in 1866 when the Irish immigrant recently paroled from the Confederte Army was eighteen, to whom he wrote many letters beginning "Dear Pete, dear son, my darling boy, my young &#amp; loving brother." Doyle was interviewed in 1877 and described their very first meeting, during a storm when Whitman was his only passenger: "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." The number of Doyle's streetcar was "14", which Whitman used as a secret cypher in his private journal, in which he records that he (Whitman) picked up and "slept with" literally dozens of other young men. The two lovers regularly took long walks in the moonlight along the Potomac river, and saw each other at least once week – if not more often – for the next seven years, then less often after Whitman suffered a paralysis and had to move to Camden, New Jersey. The following selections begin before he met Doyle, with letters to and from Lewy Brown, whose left leg was amputated five inches below the knee on January 5, 1864. Whitman did what he could to comfort him, and slept on the adjoining cot for the next two nights. Their correspondence illustrates the less well appreciated aspect of comradeship experienced by many young soldiers during the American Civil War. Whitman served as a nurse throughout these years and for some years afterwards, distributing oranges and tobacco to the boys in the hospital wards, dressing their wounds, writing letters to their families and friends, and daily attending the sick and the dying. He was a man of tremendous health and personal magnetism, and the soldiers never forgot his healing powers, the source of which was adhesiveness: "The men feel such love more than anything else. I have met very few persons who realize the importance of humoring the yearnings for love and friendship of these American young men, prostrated by sickness and wounds. To many of the wounded and sick, especially the youngsters, there is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world. Many will think this mere sentimentalism, but I know it is the most solid of all facts."


Elkton, Maryland
20 July 1863

My Dear Freind Walter.
            It is with mutch pleasure that I take my pen in hand to inform you that I am well and that my leg is mending verry fast I left Washington on the 2nd on the 6½ O clock train but It was the rong train and I had to get of at Haver de gras and stay all night on the Boat or els go on to Wilmington and so I got of and stayed on the boat and as good luck would have it I met 3 men on the boat that I knowed and they maid me verry comfortable that night and then I left the next morning and got home in the evening and I gave Mother a verry agreeable Supprise I was verry tired the next day but I feel well now. I think that I will soon get well hear for I have everything that I want we have a splendid garden and we have a good many cherries in fact every thing, the nice grain fields around the house and every thing looks so well. I have had a good many of my young friends to see me. I have got your picture and I am a going to have it fraimed the first time I get whear I can have it don. I expect to go on a visit up to my GranFathers in about 4 weeks and I think that I will have a nice time up thear. I only wish that you were hear I am sure that you would enjoy it for it is so nice or it appears so to me [w]ho has been pennd up in the Hospital for 10 months. My Father and Mother are well and send their respects to you for Mother says whoeve[r] did me a faivor or was a friend to me was one to her and you have bin a friend in nead and that is a friend indead. I expect that you still visit the Hospital if so give my respects to the boys I have nothing more to write at present so I will have to close hoping verry soon to hear from you so good by and God bless you from your affectionet friend
                        Lewis K Brown


Washington, D.C.
1 August 1863

Both your letters have been received, Lewy – the second one came this morning & was welcome as any thing from you will always be, & the sight of your face welcomer than all, my darling – I see you write in good spirits, & appear to have first-rate times – Lew, you must not go around too much, nor eat & drink too promiscuous, but be careful & moderate, & not let the kindness of friends carry you away, lest you break down again, dear son –
            ... – You speak of being here in Washington again about the last of August – O Lewy, how glad I should be to see you, to have you with me – I have thought if it could be so that you, & one other person & myself could be where we could work & love together, & have each other's society, we three, I should like it so much – but it is probably a dream –
            ... – Dear son, you must write me whenever you can – take opportunity when you have nothing to do, & write me a good long letter – your letters & your love for me are very precious to me, for I appreciate it all, Lew, & give you the like in return.


10 August 1863

My Dear Friend Walter,
            Your very kind and long looked for letter of Aug 1st came to hand on the 6th & I was verry glad to hear from you but was verry sorry to hear that you wer so sick & I think that it would be much better for your health if you would give your self that furlou but I think that the boys about the Hospital could ill spare you, if you are as good to them as you wer to me. I shal never for get you for your kindness to me while I was a suffering so mutch, and if you do not get your reward in this world you will in Heaven. ...


Washington, D.C.
15 August 1863

... Lew, you speak in your letter how you would like to see me – well, my darling, I wonder if there is not somebody who would be gratified to see you, & always will be wherever he is – Dear comrade, I was highly pleased at your telling me in your letter about your folks' place, the house & land & all the items – you say I must excuse you for writing so much foolishness – nothing of the kind – My darling boy, when you write to me, you must write without ceremony, I like to hear every little thing about yourself & your affairs – you need never care how you write to me, Lewy, if you will only – I never think about literary perfection in letters either, it is the man & the feeling – ...


Glymont, Maryland
22 December 1863

Friend Walt,
          Sir I am happy to announce the arrival of Your Kind and verry wellcom Epistel and I can assure you that the contents ware persued with all the pleasure immaginable. I am glad to Know that you are once more in the hotbed City of Washington So that you can go often and See that Friend of ours at Armory Square, L[ewis] K. B[rown]. The fellow that went down on your BK, both So often with me. I wished that I could See him this evening and go in the Ward Master's Room and have Some fun for he is a gay boy. I am very Sorry indeed to here that after laying So long that he is about to loose his leg, it is to bad, but I Suppose that the Lord will must be done and We must submit. Walter I Suppose that you had a nice time while at Home. I am glad to report that I enjoyed my Self finely and had a gay time. Generaly I am now paying up for the good times I had at Armory Square & at Home. ...
          Johny Strain my companion wishes to be remembred to all I am sorry to inform you that He met with another misfortune after he got Here he was thrown from his Horse and had his arm broken but is getting along very well at presant. My Love & best Wishes to all I will close Hoping to Here from you soon.
          I remain your True Friend,
                    Alonzo Bush


New York
Friday, 25 Sept., 1868

Dear Boy,
          I received your second letter yesterday – it is a real comfort to me to get such letters from you, dear friend. Every word does me good. ... There is nothing new or special to write about to-day, still I thought I would send you a few lines for Sunday. I put down off hand and write all about myself and my doings, etc., because I suppose that will be really what my dear comrade wants most to hear while we are separated. ... I think of you very often, dearest comrade, and with more calmness than when I was there. I find it first rate to think of you, Pete, and to know that you are there all right and that I shall return and we will be together again. I don't know what I should do if I hadn't you to think of and look forwrd to. ...

Photograph of Whitman and Peter Doyle

New York
Oct. 2, 1868

Dear Boy and Comrade,
          You say it is a pleasure to get my letters – well boy, it is a real pleasure to me to write to you. ... Dear Pete, with all my kind friends here and invitations, etc., though I love them all and gratefully reciprocate their kindness, I finally turn to you and think of you there. Well, I guess I have written enough for this time. Dear Pete, I will now bid you good-bye for the present. Take care of yourself and God bless you, my loving comrade. I will write again soon.

Brooklyn, N. Y.
Saturday evening, Aug. 21 [1869]

Dear Pete,
          I have been very sick the last three days – I don't know what to call it – it makes me prostrated and deadly weak, and little use of my limbs. I have thought of you, my darling boy, very much of the time. I have not been out of the house since the first day after my arrival ... And now dear Pete for yourself. How is it with you, dearest boy – and is there anything different with the face? [Doyle had an obstinate skin disease, tinea sycosis, and an eruption on his face which the army doctor that Whitman took him to said had to be lanced and cuaterized. This depressed him so much that Whitman thought he was contemplating suicide.] Dear Pete, you must forgive me for being so cold the last day and evening. I was unspeakably shocked and repelled from you by that talk and proposition of yours – you know what – there by the fountain. It seemed indeed to me, (for I will talk out plain to you, dearest comrade) that the one I loved, and who had always been so manly and sensible, was gone, and a fool and intentional muderer stood in his place. I spoke so sternly and cutting. (Though I see now that my words might have appeared to have a certain other meaning, which I didn't dream of – insulting to you, never for one moment in my thoughts.) But will say no more of this – for I know such thoughts must have come when you was not yourself, but in a moment of derangement, – and have passed away like a bad dream.
          Dearest boy, I have not a doubt but you will get well, and entirely well [he did] – and we will one day look back on these drawbacks and sufferings as things long past. The extreme cases of that malady, (as I told you before) are persons that have very deeply diseased blood, probably with syphilis in it, inherited from parentage, and confirmed by themselves – so they have no foundation to build on. You are of healthy stock, with a sound constitution and good blood – and I know it is impossible for it to continue long. My darling, if you are not well when I come back I will get a good room or two in some quiet place, (or out of Washington, perhaps in Baltimore), and we will live together and devote ourselves altogether to the job of curing you, and rooting the cursed thing out entirely, and making you stronger and healthier than ever. I have had this in my mind before but never broached it to you. I could go on with my work in the Attorney General's office just the same – and we would see that your mother should have a small sum every week to keep the pot a-boiling at home.
          Dear comrade, I think of you very often. My love for you is indestrutible, and since that night and morning has returned more than before.
          Dear Pete, dear son, my darling boy, my young and loving brother, don't let the devil put such thoughts in your mind again – wickedness unspeakable – death and disgrace here, and hell's agonies hereafer – Then what would it be afterward to the mother? What to me? – Pete, I send you some money by Adam's Express – you use it, dearest son, and when it is gone you shall have some more, for I have plenty. I will write again before long – give my love to Johnny Lee, my dear darling boy. I love him truly – (let him read these three last lines) – Dear Pete, remember

Saturday afternoon, July 30 [1870]

Dear Pete,
          Well here I am home again with my mother, writing to you from Brooklyn once more. We parted there, you know, at the corner of 7th St. Tuesday night. Pete there was something in that hour from 10 to 11 o'clock (parting though it was) that has left me pleasure and comfort for good – I never dreamed that you made so much of having me with you, nor that you could feel so downcast at losing me. I foolishly thought it was all on the other side. But all I will say further on the subject is, I now see clearly, that was all wrong. ...           Love to you, dear Pete – and I won't be so long again writing to my darling boy.

Wednesday night, Aug. 3, [1870]

Dear Pete,
          Dear son, I received your second letter to-day .... Dear son, I can almost see you drowsing and nodding since last Sunday, going home late – especially as we wait there at 7th St. and I am telling you something deep about the heavenly bodies – and in the midst of it I look around and find you fast asleep, and your head on my shoulder like a chunk of wood – an awful compliment to my lecturing powers. ... Good night, Pete – Good night, my darling son – here is a kiss for you, dear boy – on the paper here – a good long one. ... 10 o'clock at night – As this is lying here on my table to be sent off to-morrow, I will imagine you with your arm around my neck saying Good night, Walt – and me – Good night, Pete.

SOURCE: Fred Vaughan, Lewis Brown and Alonzo Bush letters from Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working-Class Camerados and Drumn Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers, both ed. Charley Shively (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1987 and 1989), used by permission; to Peter Doyle from Calamus: A Series of Letters Written During the Years 1868-1880 by Walt Whitman to a Young Friend (Peter Doyle)(, ed. Richard Maurice Bucke (Boston: Laurens Maynard, 1897).

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