The romantic friendship that Walt Whitman shared with Peter Doyle embodied the "love of comrades" celebrated in Whitman's "Calamus" poems. Their thirty-year friendship (1865–1892) left a legacy of loving letters from the older man to his younger companion which are invaluable reference points for the student seeking to understand Whitman's emotional and sexual nature.
Doyle and Whitman met one winter's evening in Washington, D.C. The twenty-one-year-old Doyle was the conductor on a Pennsylvania Avenue horsecar, and the forty-five-year-old Whitman was the car's sole passenger. Doyle recalled, "We were familiar at once—I put my hand on his knee—we understood . . . From that time on, we were the biggest sort of friends" (qtd. in Bucke 23).
In some respects Doyle seems an unlikely companion for "America's poet." Born in Limerick, Ireland, on 3 June 1843, and reared in America's South, Doyle came into manhood armed as a Confederate soldier against the Union that Whitman held so dear. A marginally literate working man, Doyle was no intellectual or social match for Whitman, the well-known poet and federal employee whose Washington friends included Lincoln's former secretary, John Hay, Ohio Congressman James Garfield, and Attorney General J. Hubley Ashton.
Yet, in ways that mattered more, Doyle was precisely the kind of man Whitman loved best. The poet always followed his own admonition, laid down in the Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, to "go freely with powerful uneducated persons" (Whitman 715). In his youthful grace and good health, Doyle was a welcome tonic for the war-weary Whitman, who had spent the previous two years in Washington's army hospitals nursing the wounded. They spent long afternoons riding the streetcars, or eating fresh fruits at Center Market. Evenings were reserved for moonlit walks along the Potomac River that had Whitman reciting Shakespeare's sonnets to Doyle, and Doyle relating his favorite limericks to Whitman. Whitman also relished the opportunity to be part of the young man's large family circle. It included Doyle's widowed mother, Catherine, and his younger brother Edward and sister Margaret, for whom Pete made a home. Also nearby were the families of married brothers James and Francis, and aunt Ann and uncle Michael Nash, whom Whitman counted among his dear friends.
Doyle is usually associated with Whitman's "Calamus" poems, although he did not serve as the muse for these tender verses first published in 1860. The satisfaction that Whitman derived from his relationship with Doyle, however, may have influenced him to drop several of the more anxiety-ridden "Calamus" poems in editions of Leaves of Grass brought out after 1865. Whitman's expressed affection for the former Confederate artilleryman reinforced the theme of reconciliation in the poet's war writings. The eyewitness narrative of Lincoln's assassination found in Memoranda During the War (1875–1876) may have been inspired by Doyle, who was at Ford's Theater on that fateful Good Friday.
A stroke that Whitman suffered on 23 January 1873 caused him to settle later that year in Camden, New Jersey, with his brother George and sister-in-law Louisa. The intensity of Whitman's friendship with Doyle waned with time and distance. In New Jersey, Harry Stafford provided Whitman with a measure of the companionship that Doyle was not there to give.
In the mid-1880s Whitman and Doyle renewed their intimacy when Doyle—now employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad as a baggage master—settled in Philadelphia and made weekly visits to Whitman in Camden. The round-the-clock presence of caretakers during the poet's last years eventually alienated Doyle, whose calls became infrequent. Before Whitman's death on 26 March 1892, Doyle explained to Whitman the reason why he visited so rarely, and the old man understood. Doyle attended Whitman's funeral at Harleigh Cemetery.
Peter Doyle made a lasting contribution to Whitman biography in 1897 when he allowed Richard Maurice Bucke to edit and publish Whitman's letters to Doyle, which Doyle had entrusted to Bucke in 1880. Included with the letters was Bucke's interview of Doyle, which Henry James in his 1898 review of the book called "the most charming passage in the volume" (260).
Doyle was a member of the Walt Whitman Fellowship and enjoyed the friendship of Horace and Ann Traubel, Gustave Percival Wiksell, and publisher Laurens Maynard. Doyle continued to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad until his death on 19 April 1907 at age 63. Peter Doyle is buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Martin G. Murray
Bucke, Richard Maurice, ed. Calamus: A Series of Letters Written During the Years 1868–1880 by Walt Whitman to a Young Friend (Peter Doyle). Boston: Small, Maynard, 1897.
James, Henry. "Henry James on Walt Whitman, 1898." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. London: Routledge, 1971. 259–260.
Murray, Martin G. "Pete the Great: A Biography of Peter Doyle." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 12 (1994): 1–51.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.