Books & Manuscripts

Literally in Love: The Story of Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle

By Selby Kiffer, Halina Loft
Walt Whitman is renowned for his contributions to the canon of American literature, especially the publication of his groundbreaking poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. More than this, Whitman was a fervent individualist, especially when it came to his relationships with men. A presentation copy of Leaves of Grass , inscribed by Whitman to his friend and lover Peter Doyle, features in BENT. , an upcoming Sotheby's auction celebrating the LGBTQ experience as reflected in the arts from the 19th Century to the present.

I n 1865, Walt Whitman was in the prime of his life. At 45, the great American poet was already an accomplished literary figure, having published several editions of Leaves of Grass, as well as other works. But even still, 1865 would prove transformative for Whitman: at some point early in the year, he was introduced to Peter Doyle, his longtime friend, lover, and "Calamus" muse.

Doyle was just 21 years old when he met Whitman in Washington D.C. – but age wasn't the only dissimilarity in the relationship. While Whitman was a masterful writer and ardent Unionist, Doyle was virtually illiterate, a Confederate veteran and worked as a streetcar conductor. But despite the odds against them, they pair became great companions, a relationship that would last until Whitman's death in 1892.

Sotheby's BENT. sale offers an intimate glimpse into Whitman and Doyle's relationship: a presentation copy of Leaves of Grass, inscribed by the poet to his companion on the front flyleaf: "Peter G. Doyle, from Walt Whitman, Washington, April 29, 1868."

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, New York: (William E. Chapin for the Author) 1867. Presentation copy , inscribed by Whitman to his "Calamus Lover," Peter Doyle on the front flyleaf: "Peter G. Doyle, from Walt Whitman, Washington, April 29, 1868." Estimate $70,000 – 100,000.

This is the scarce first issue of the fourth edition, including sheets from the first editions of Drum-Taps, Sequel to Drum-Taps, and "Songs Before Parting," all with separate title-pages and pagination. An astonishing association copy, this property is a vital relic of the greatest love of Whitman's life.

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, Washington DC. Photo taken sometime in 1865. Photo by M. P. Rice, Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress

Dr. R. M. Bucke, one of Whitman's early adherents, edited and published Whitman and Doyle's letters in 1897 as Calamus: A Series of Letters Written During the Years 1868–1880 by Walt Whitman to a Young Friend (Peter Doyle). In an interview with Bucke published in Calamus, Doyle fondly recalled his first meeting with the poet:

"How different Walt was then in Washington from the Walt you knew in later years! You would not believe it. He was an athlete—great, great. I knew him to do wonderful lifting, running, walking. You ask where I first met him? It is a curious story. We felt to each other at once. 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 him drew me that way. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him. 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."
Peter Doyle, speaking on Walt Whitman

Whitman and Doyle were near-constant companions for seven years. Martin Murray has written that the "effects of [Whitman's] friendship with Doyle may also be seen in the 1867 edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass"—that is, the edition from which the present presentation copy derives:

"Whitman added several new poems, but more significantly, deleted three poems that had been in the 'Calamus' section. As Florence Freedman noted in her biography of Whitman's knight-errant, William Douglas O'Connor [William Douglas O'Connor, Walt Whitman's Chosen Knight (Ohio University Press, 1985)], Whitman eliminated those poems that 'expressed self-doubt and despair,' but 'kept those which expressed love and longing unaccompanied by despair.' … It seems likely … that Walt's new-found confidence in love was, in large measure, a result of his satisfying friendship with Pete. The excisions can be interpreted as Whitman putting the unhappiness of his first 'Calamus' love relationship with Fred Vaughan behind him, as he embarked on this new love adventure."
Martin Murray, "'Pete the Great': A Biography of Peter Doyle"

BENT. also includes a fine copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855. Of the 795 copies comprising the first edition and printed on the small handpress of the Romes in Brooklyn, only 337 were bound in this, the most ornate of the original cloth bindings.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn: [For the Author by Andrew and James Rome,] 1855. Estimate $150,000 – 200,000.
Excerpt from Walt Whitman's Song of Myself, from Leaves of Grass.

Although Doyle and Whitman were in touch until the latter's death in 1892, they saw less of each other after 1873 when Whitman suffered both the death of his mother and a debilitating stroke, events that led him from Washington back to New York and, eventually, to Camden, New Jersey. That same year, Whitman drew up a will in which he left to Doyle his silver pocket watch; a revised will of 1888 maintained that bequest, but in Whitman's final will, 1892, Doyle was left nothing. He retained all of Walt's letters and postcards, of course, and seems to have received various mementos of Whitman from other of the poet's disciples, Bucke, Horace Traubel, and John Burroughs, who made sure that Doyle was admitted to Whitman's funeral.

Charles Shively finds in another poignant reminiscence captured by Bucke's interview an echo of the final poem in the Calamus cycle, "Full of Life Now": "I, that was visible, am become invisible, … / Fancying how happy you were, if I could be with you, and become your comrade; / Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)." Doyle's words were spoken after he had gone to the closet and retrieved an old raglan of Walt's:

"I now and then put it on, lay down, think I am in the old times. Then he is with me again. It's the only thing I kept amongst many old things. When I get it on and stretch out on the old sofa I am very well contented. It is like Aladdin's lamp. I do not ever for a minute lose the old man. He is always near by."
Peter Doyle on Walt Whitman

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