Harry Stafford was only eighteen years old in 1876 when he took a job as an errand boy at the Camden New Republic. He was a moody adolescent, given to fits of brooding and impulsive behavior. Walt Whitman, then 57 and still recovering from his stroke of 1873, came to the office to work on the Centennial edition of Leaves of Grass, and the two began one of the most intense relationships of the poet's life.
Stafford took Whitman to visit his parents at White Horse Farm, near Kirkwood, New Jersey. The farm adjoined Timber Creek (now called Laurel Springs), and Whitman made his way down to the creek to regenerate his health by wrestling with birch saplings and taking "Adamic" mud baths. He also found time to meet there with a Stafford farm hand named Ed Cattell, but he kept those encounters secret from Stafford.
Stafford and Whitman slept together in the same top floor bedroom, and when they traveled together Whitman referred to him as "my nephew" and insisted that they be accommodated in the same bed (Whitman 68). Whitman's friend John Burroughs complained that they "cut up like two boys" (qtd. in Whitman 79, n19), and he found their frolicsome behavior annoying. The Stafford family, however, were pleased to see the well-known man act as mentor to their son and gladly forgave any bad manners, chalking them up to artistic temperament. They hung a picture of the poet on their sitting room wall.
Despite the frolicking, the relationship was a stormy one. They quarreled frequently, and several times Stafford returned a friendship ring given to him by Whitman. Stafford wrote that there was "something wanting to compleete [sic] our friendship" (qtd. in Shively 143), perhaps meaning sexual relations. At another time, he wrote of wanting to buy a suit of clothes like Whitman's so he could earn the admiration of his friends. He also wrote, "I am thinking of what I am shielding, I want to try and make a man of myself" (qtd. in Miller 6), perhaps referring to guilt about homosexuality or simply to immaturity.
The nature of their bond remains mysterious, and critics have interpreted it as everything from asexual and paternal to erotic and promiscuous. Whitman seems to have been less ambivalent. He wrote in his notebooks of their peaceful times together and of his dismay at Stafford's mercurial anxiety. At one point, he wrote of his gratitude for Stafford's help in his medical recovery, declaring, " you, my darling boy, are the central figure of them all " (Whitman 215).
Stafford went from one job to another until he returned to the family farm. He and Whitman remained close until Stafford married Eva Westcott in 1884, after which the poet visited occasionally. When he died, Whitman left Stafford his silver watch, originally intended for Peter Doyle.
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Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.
Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Introduction. The Correspondence. By Walt Whitman. Ed. Miller. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1964. 1–9.
Shively, Charley. Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1987.
Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1964.