During the Civil War, Walt Whitman moved to Washington, where he met Peter Doyle, a former Confederate soldier. Whitman’s letters, including those to Doyle, were recently put online by the Library of Congress.
“They met one stormy night in 1865 when Whitman was the last passenger on Doyle’s car,” according to the Library Congress exhibit. “To Pete, the poet looked ‘like an old sea-captain.’ 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.”
“They said it was love at first sight,” said Barbara Bair, literature and cultural specialist. They took long walks. Whitman read Shakespeare to him. Doyle read limericks. In love letters, Whitman referred to Doyle as comrade, son and darling.
Their relationship changed, Bair said, when Whitman suffered a nearly fatal stroke while working late in the Treasury building. He moved to Camden, N.J., to live with his brother and recuperate.
In a letter dated June 20, 1877, Whitman wrote:
Dear, dear boy Pete I’m stopping here now for a week or two in the house I believe I have mentioned to you before, and where I wanted you to come and see me and still want you if you have a chance. But I spend most of my time down at an old farm down in New Jersey where I have a fine secluded wood and Creek and springs, where I pass my time alone, and yet not lonesome at all (often think of you Pete and put my arm around you and hug you up close, and give you a good buss often.)
“Your Old Walt.”
The profound portrayal of “longing” caused by the distance between the two lovers makes the letter compelling, Bair said.