Born on Long Island, Whitman worked as a journalist, a teacher, a government clerk, and—in addition to publishing his poetry—was a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. Early in his career, he also produced a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842). Whitman's major work, Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855 with his own money. The work was an attempt at reaching out to the common person with an American epic. He continued expanding and revising it until his death in 1892. After a stroke towards the end of his life, he moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his health further declined. He died at age 72 and his funeral became a public spectacle.
Whitman's sexuality is often discussed alongside his poetry. Though biographers continue to debate his sexuality, he is usually described as either homosexual or bisexual in his feelings and attractions. However, there is disagreement among biographers as to whether Whitman had actual sexual experiences with men. Whitman was concerned with politics throughout his life. He supported the Wilmot Proviso and opposed the extension of slavery generally. His poetry presented an egalitarian view of the races, and at one point he called for the abolition of slavery, but later he saw the abolitionist movement as a threat to democracy.
Whitman and Peter Doyle, one of the men with whom Whitman was believed to have had an intimate relationship.
Many literary scholars consider Walt Whitman this country's most influential poet. The works collected in Whitman's Leaves of Grass pay homage to the freedom and dignity of the individual while celebrating democracy and the brotherhood of man. Peter Doyle was a 21-year-old conductor on a horse-drawn streetcar when he and Whitman, who was 45 at the time, became lovers. Whitman and Doyle were in an outlaw marriage from 1865 until 1892, when Whitman died.
Walt Whitman and Bill Duckett
Whitman's sexuality is generally assumed to be homosexual or bisexual based on his poetry, though that has been at times disputed. His poetry depicts love and sexuality in a more earthy, individualistic way common in American culture before the medicalization of sexuality in the late 19th century. Though Leaves of Grass was often labeled pornographic or obscene, only one critic remarked on its author's presumed sexual activity: in a November 1855 review, Rufus Wilmot Griswold suggested Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians". Whitman had intense friendships with many men and boys throughout his life. Some biographers have claimed that he may not have actually engaged in sexual relationships with males, while others cite letters, journal entries and other sources which they claim as proof of the sexual nature of some of his relationships.
Peter Doyle (June 3, 1843 - April 19, 1907) may be the most likely candidate for the love of Whitman's life, according to biographer David S. Reynolds. Doyle was a bus conductor whom Whitman met around 1866, and the two were inseparable for several years. Interviewed in 1895, Doyle said: "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." In his notebooks, Whitman disguised Doyle's initials using the code "16.4". A more direct second-hand account comes from Oscar Wilde. Wilde met Whitman in America in 1882 and wrote to the homosexual rights activist George Cecil Ives that there was "no doubt" about the great American poet's sexual orientation—"I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips", he boasted. The only explicit description of Whitman's sexual activities is secondhand. In 1924 Edward Carpenter, then an old man, described an erotic encounter he had had in his youth with Whitman to Gavin Arthur, who recorded it in detail in his journal. Late in his life, when Whitman was asked outright if his "Calamus" poems were homosexual, he chose not to respond.
Another possible lover was Bill Duckett. As a young teenage boy he lived in on the same street in Camden and moved in with Whitman, living with him a number of years and serving him in various roles. Duckett was fifteen when Whitman bought his house at 328 Mickle Street. Since, at least 1880, Duckett and his grandmother, Lydia Watson, were boarders subletting space from another family at 334 Mickle Street. Due to this close proximity it is obvious that Duckett and Whitman met as neighbors. Their relationship was close, with the youth sharing Whitman's money when he had it. Whitman described their friendship as "thick". Though some biographers describe him as a boarder, others identify him as a lover. Their photograph is described as "modeled on the conventions of a marriage portrait", part of a series of portraits of the poet with his young male friends, and encrypting male-male desire. Yet another intense relationship with a young man was the one with Harry Stafford, with whose family he stayed when at Timber Creek, and whom he first met when the young man was 18, in 1876. Whitman gave young Stafford a ring, which was returned and given back over the course of a stormy relationship lasting a number of years. Of that ring Stafford wrote to Whitman, "You know when you put it on there was but one thing to part it from me, and that was death."
There is also some evidence that Whitman may have had sexual relationships with women. He had a romantic friendship with a New York actress named Ellen Grey in the spring of 1862, but it is not known if it were also sexual. He still had a photo of her decades later when he moved to Camden and referred to her as "an old sweetheart of mine". In a letter dated August 21, 1890 he claimed, "I have had six children—two are dead". This claim has never been corroborated. Toward the end of his life, he often told stories of previous girlfriends and sweethearts and denied an allegation from the New York Herald that he had "never had a love affair". As Whitman biographer Jerome Loving wrote, "the discussion of Whitman's sexual orientation will probably continue in spite of whatever evidence emerges."
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Yes, the same book of poetry you probably had to slog through in eleventh grade high school English class. Though I don't write much poetry now, I did write many poems in high school and college. I was never one for structured form, so when I was introduced to Walt Whitman's free verse, I felt a very kindred spirit. Even in my teenage years, I delighted in the sensual homoeroticism in Whitman's words, particularly the poems which dealt with camraderie during wartime (what'd I tell you? I like that theme). The more I read of Whitman, the more I discover in his words, and my own personal experiences color the way I read his poems when I revisit them. Now I see deeper nuances to his poetry that I didn't before, and I can appreciate his homoeroticism in a way I couldn't before. No matter how often I reread this book, it seems to change each time. --JM Snyder
What can you say about Whitman? I discovered him at that acutely painful, critical period in my own lonely, confused adolescence when poetry was the only chance I was willing to take toward being who I really was. Whitman was a sweeping, shining, larger-than-life beacon and expression of what could be, not to mention a literary force who literally changed the face of American poetry. --Dan Stone
If you know me, you know about the poetry thing. Leaves of Grass is the book I can quote on command. I’ve been reading it for twenty years ands it’s etched in my mind like verses of the Bible ought to be.Further Readings:“Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,Imagine they mystery of life as a tall, dark stallion. Makes your scalp tingle, doesn’t it? --AM Riley
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.”
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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