Walt Whitman’s Friends
William Douglas O’Connor was born in Boston, Massachusetts, January 2, 1833. In the beginning he was into painting until he was compelled to leave his passion, he turned to something that he could focus on and makes a career. Even before the age of twenty he landed a job as associate editor of the Boston “Commonwealth”. In 1852 he became the editor of the Philadelphia “Saturday Evening Post”. Once he became the editor in 1852 it was all uphill from there. He was the editor in Philadelphia from 1852-1860, in 1861 became corresponding clerk of the light-house board in Washington. He then became Chief Clerk in 1873 and 1874 librarian of the treasury department. He finally became assistant general superintendent of the life-saving service, of the annual reports which he was the author in 1878.
Walt Whitman and William O’Connor met for the first time in 1860. This was the same year that Whitman’s third edition of Leaves of Grass was published and the same year that O’Connor’s only novel, Harrington: A Story of True Love was published. They would not meet again until two years later in Washington. This was when Whitman traveled to Washington to look for his brother George in military hospitals; he had been wounded there in the Battle of Fredericksburg.
O’Connor invited Whitman into his home and they quickly became friends and O’Connor an enthusiastic of Whitman’s poetry. For five months Whitman lived with O’Connor and his family and after that for another ten years he was a regular guest in the O’Connor home. During that time O’Connor helped Whitman get a job as a clerk in the Indian Affairs Bureau of the Department of Interior (1865). It was not long before the Secretary of the Interior James Harlan fired Whitman due to moral character of Leaves of Grass. O’Connor found this was his first major opportunity to defend Whitman.
O’Connor then risked his own career when he did two things; regained Whitman a governmental position and assail the forces of censorship in defense of Leaves of Grass. To do this he needed to go to his friend Assistant Attorney General James Speed. Here O’Connor said that he would not interfere and Speed chooses to hire Whitman who held that job until 1874. Whitman only left his position in 1874 due to his health. The second thing that O’Connor did was to publish a 46-page pamphlet, The Good Grey Poet: A Vindication in 1866, which criticized Harlan and other Whitman critics.
O’Connor favored liberal and noble causes. Whitman and O’Connor often debated efficacy of external, socially-imposed reform as opposed to internal, personally motivated reform. This did cause a problem in 1872 when Whitman walked out on a debate on Charles Sumner’s war policies and Reconstruction. This was one in which O’Connor supported and Whitman opposed. Whitman left and Ellen M. Tarr O’Connor (William’s wife), defended him. O’Connor held such resentment towards both Whitman and his wife that he left her. He would visit his daughter and send his wife his government check he did not live with her again until the near end of his life and this was because he needed her to take care of him. This was the end of their close friendship. They did have a reunion in 1882 and after that O’Connor allowed Whitman’s friend Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke to reprint Good Grey Poet in his biography of Whitman. O’Connor also gave Bucke an introductory 25-page letter which praised Whitman and his poetry.
Peter Doyle is said to have been born on June 3, 1843, in Limerick City, Ireland. There was a lot of mystery that surrounded the birth date of Doyle. He used to claim that it was one date and his death certificate claimed another, however when Dr. S. C. O’ Mahony of the Limerick Regional Archives found Doyle’s baptism records. Doyle’s family moved to America in 1852 around the age of 8. He emigrated here with his mother and his brothers, John, James, and Edward. This we know for their names can be found on a passenger list for the vessel William Patten. It was said that his father and one other brother had come to America earlier that year. Sadly it is thought that his sisters Elizabeth and Mary were tragic victims of the Great Hunger the hit Ireland late 1840’s. Their names are never shown on any vessel passenger lists. The Doyle’s spent the first few years in America living in Alexandria, Virginia. Doyle’s family then moved to Richmond, Virginia when the Depression started.
When the War broke out Doyle entered the military. Doyle is shown to have enlisted April 25, 1861 with the Richmond Fayette Artillery. Here he serves with them for seventeen months and was discharged on November 7, 1862. Doyle was discharged from the military but not before being wounded. Doyle was trying to head north, as he tried to cross Federal lines he was captured by Union forces, becoming a prisoner of war. He was captured on April 8, 1863 and put in Carroll Prison in Washington, DC and was held until May 11, 1863.
Doyle then gets his first job with the Washington Navy yard as a Smith’s helper in December 1863. He held this job from December 1863 until June 1865. During this time he lived with his brother Francis Michael and his wife. It was also during this time that Peter Doyle took on a second job as a horsecar conductor with the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company. This is where Doyle met Whitman. They were an unlikey match both they had a connection. It is said that Doyle was drawn to Whitman at once. Doyle stated that, “We were familiar at once—I put my hand on his knee—we understood. Whitman did not get out at the end of the trip—in fact he went all the way back with me. Doyle thinks the year is 1866. From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends.” It is said though that the year Whitman and Doyle met was actually early 1865.
Whitman and Doyle would be very close until Whitman moves to Camden, New Jersey in 1873 due to his first stroke. Their romantic friendship that they shared was celebrated in Whitman’s “Calamus” poems and embodied the “love of comrades”. The thirty-year friendship between Whitman and Doyle had produced a legacy of loving letters from the older Whitman to his younger companion.
Talcott Williams was born in Abeih, Turkey in 1849. He was the son of Congregational Missionaries. He and his family moved to America where Williams became an American journalist and educator. Williams graduated from Amherst college in Massachusetts. Williams worked for the Philadelphia Press for thirty years. It is thought that Williams and Whitman became friends in 1882. This is thought due to a letter from Whitman to William O’Connor. Williams helped Whitman in a variety of ways over several years. Williams was one of several people who helped buy Whitman his horse and carriage in September 1885.