The ‘Grass’ is getting greener
D.C. to celebrate 150th anniversary of gay poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
by Brian Moylan
The Washington Blade
Friday, March 25, 2005
MANY AMERICANS got their first exposure to the great gay poet Walt Whitman in obligatory high school or college English classes. For Martin Murray, his first encounter with Whitman was, strangely enough, on television.
In 1976, when he was 20, Murray watched the movie “Song of Myself” on CBS, which showed Whitman (played by Rip Torn) and his partner Peter Doyle (Brad Davis) meeting on a train and going home together.
“As a young gay man, it was something I needed at that time,” Murray says from his home in D.C. “The thought of having Brad Davis as a lover was also very appealing.”
Not interested in Whitman’s poetry, Murray, an economist by trade, began to research Whitman’s life and is an expert on the subject, publishing “Pete the Great: A Biography of Peter Doyle” in 1994. In the ’80s, he learned that his friend Morgan McDonald also loved the “great gray poet” and the pair came up with a walking tour of D.C. that highlights the places where Whitman lived and worked in the city.
“When we were advertising the tour … we couldn’t say, ‘Martin and Morgan present’ so we came up with the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman,” jokes Murray, who has been president of the group since its inception in 1987.
After slowly growing over nearly two decades, the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, which Murray describes as a mostly informal group, is about to undertake its most ambitious project to date: a two month-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Whitman’s masterpiece “Leaves of Grass.”
From March 26th (the date of Whitman’s death in 1892) through May 31 (the date of Whitman’s birth in 1819) the city is scheduled to host “D.C. Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass,” which includes poetry readings, walking tours and even a meditation session in conjunction with the celebration.
Murray called on Kim Roberts, a fellow Friend of Whitman and the editor of the online literary journal Beltway, to chair the festival.
First, Roberts published a Whitman edition of Beltway where poets in the region submitted poems directly addressing or influenced by Whitman. Many of the poets will be reading at different events throughout the festival.
Roberts, an arts administrator, enlisted help from friends around town and, as word of the events spread, different organizations approached Roberts about being included in the festivities.
Now, the celebration not only includes the Friends, but also the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Library of Congress, the Rainbow History Project, the Arts Club of Washington, George Washington University and Catholic University.
Many of the programs focus on Whitman’s presence in the District.
“I wish that more people associated Whitman with Washington,” Roberts says. “Most people associate him with New York and New Jersey. He considered the 10 years he was in D.C. the most important time of his life. The fact that so many people don’t realize that he spent so long and such an important time here is a shame. We need to do more to claim him as one of our own.”
BORN ON A farm on Long Island, N.Y., Whitman moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was a small boy. After dropping out of school at 11, he continued to educate himself and became a printer’s apprentice. After working as a printer in Brooklyn, Whitman worked as a schoolteacher on Long Island.
After he grew tired of teaching, Whitman spent the ’30s and ’40s writing and editing at different newspapers in Long Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan. In 1855, he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which he would continue to revise, adapt and augment in various editions throughout his life, before the final edition was published in 1892.
At 43, Whitman moved to D.C., in 1862, after learning that his brother George was injured in the Civil War. He visited soldiers at different Civil War hospitals around the city, caring for them as a nurse and supporting himself as a government clerk, first at the Army Paymaster’s Office and later at the Indian Bureau at the Department of the Interior.
In 1865, he met Doyle, an Irish immigrant who served in the Rebel Army and operated a streetcar for the Washington and Georgetown Railroad.
Doyle wrote of their meeting, “He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him … 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.”
In the same year, Whitman was fired from his job because of his “obscene” poetry. While often cloaked under the guise of male “comrades” and the concept of “adhesion,” (which Whitman borrowed from the faux-science phrenology), Whitman’s poems were often explicit about same-sex love.
First published in 1860, the “Calamus” poems, named after a wild plant that resembles an erect penis, are Whitman’s most homoerotic. In the first of the series of 51 poems, Whitman says their purpose is “to tell the secret of my nights and days,/ To celebrate the need of comrades.”
The poem “City of Orgies” in the series is a paean to cruising in New York where Whitman talks about the “frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,/ Offering response to my own — these repay me,/ Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.”
Afterwards, Whitman tried to cover his tracks a bit, changing the pronouns in some poems in subsequent editions. In 1890, he went so far as to say a homosexual reading of the “Calamus” poems was “damnable” and claimed to have fathered several children.
Though it’s hard for anyone to prove that Whitman had sexual relations with men (as Murray says, we don’t have Doyle’s “stained blue jeans”) it’s undeniable that his affections were for men and it does not appear that he ever had a romantic relationship with a woman, according to various scholars.
In 1865, a friend arranged for him to get a job at the Attorney General’s office and Whitman published two of his most famous poems, “Oh Captain, My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” both tributes to Abraham Lincoln.
In 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke and was moved to Camden, N.J., to be entrusted to the care of his brother, George. Doyle stayed behind with his family, though he continued to correspond with and visit Whitman.
Whitman remained in New Jersey for the rest of his life, often traveling to give lectures on Lincoln’s assassination —thanks to Doyle, who was in the audience at Ford’s Theater the night the president was killed and gave Whitman an eyewitness account.
Whitman also received many male visitors at his home (which is now a museum), including Oscar Wilde in 1882. He died of pneumonia in 1892 and is buried in Camden.
THOUGH HE’S BEEN dead for more than 100 years, Whitman’s influence is still felt today.
“The way Whitman could make a connection across the ages to us still living, it’s like he’s reading over your shoulder,” says Saundra Rose Maley, a local poet and English professor at George Washington University who guest edited the Whitman edition of Beltway. “It’s the conversation between the great poets of the ages.”
Gay poet Mark Doty, who is reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library on May 16 as part of the Whitman festival, was asked to come because of his similarities to the poet.
“I think we really do share a common legacy,” he says. “For me, Whitman’s sexuality is a major part of that connection.
“He’s someone who moves from a farm into New York, finds a world of possibility there and then connects to an alternative sexual community,” Doty continues. “That is the beginning of modern urban gay life and he stands right at that moment when gay men are finding freedom and possibility.”
In his most recent book, 2001’s “Source,” Doty has a long poem “Letter to Walt Whitman.” He writes, “all century, poets lining up/ to claim lineage. And not just poets—/ in a photo book, brand-new,/ handsome lads wrestle in sepia … pose in nothing on opposite pages from stanzas/ of your verse.”
The poem ends with Doty and his boyfriend standing in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart-esque store which, like the lewd poetry book, Doty thinks is an example of how Americans have misinterpreted Whitman’s message.
“There’s a sadness about it,” Doty says of the poem. “We know that America now is so marked by the concentration of money and power in the hand of the few and that is what he didn’t want to happen.”
The late gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg also equates Whitman with commercialism in his poem “American Supermarket in California,” where he calls Whitman “courage teacher,” an epithet Murray rather enjoys.
“I think that for as long as Whitman has been around, even in his own lifetime, people looked to him to see that it’s OK to have these feelings for other men,” he says. “He expressed them in such a way that it wasn’t a source of shame anymore, but a source of happiness.”
Roberts says that the Whitman celebration tries to capitalize on that influence.
“It’s important not to see him as an historical relic,” she says. “We wanted to have an equal measure of the modern influence and a look back at the city 150 years ago. We tried to have a combination of events.”
Mark Meinke, founder of the Rainbow History Project, a group dedicated to preserving the gay history of metropolitan Washington D.C., says that it isn’t important for Whitman’s poetry that people know he’s gay.
But “for the gay community it is important,” he says. “Whitman makes no attempt to hide his same-sex affection in his poetry, which has always had a liberating effect on gays and lesbians.”
As part of the sesquicentennial festival, the Rainbow History project printed a brochure for a self-guided Whitman tour of Washington, similar to those they have created for neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill. Brother, Help Thyself, a fund-raising organization associated with the city’s leather community, funded the project along with Gival Press, a small publishing house based in Arlington, Va.
The text of the pamphlet was written by Roberts and Murray, based on his original walking tour, which includes the sites of places where Whitman worked, lived, shopped and socialized. All of the boarding houses in D.C. where Whitman rented rooms are now gone and only two of the four buildings where he worked still stand, the old U.S. Patent Office, which is now the National Portrait Gallery on 8th and F Streets, NW, and the U.S. Treasury Building on 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
The tour doesn’t include Peter Doyle’s grave in Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill, though a tour of Doyle’s resting place is scheduled on May 7.
To ensure that Whitman’s legacy in D.C. has a permanent home, Murray and the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman are lobbying the D.C. City Council to rename the section of G Street, NW, between 7th and 8th Streets (in front of the Portrait Gallery), “Walt Whitman Way.”
Councilmembers Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), and Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4) introduced the “Walt Whitman Way Designation Act of 2005,” which is pending Council action.
D.C. Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass
Grace Church, 1041 Wiconsin Ave., NW
Poetry reading featuring poets Mark DeFoe, Grace Cavalieri, Sarah Browning and Hilary Tham reading from their and Whitman’s work.
Chapters, 445 11th St., NW
Poetry reading featuring poets David Bergman, Myra Sklarew and Rosemary Winslow reading from their and Whitman’s work.
April 14 & 15
Fords Theater, 511 10th St., NW
9:15 a.m. - 4:15 p.m.
Dramatic readings of Whitman’s poem “O Captain, My Captain!” along with the story of Lincoln’s assassination.
Friends Meeting of Washington, 2111 Florida Ave., NW
A meditation session based on Whitman’s own meditation practices. Limited to 20 people. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
George Washington University’s Marvin Center, 800 21st St., NW
Noon - 5 p.m.
A marathon reading of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass by area poets, scholars, actors and politicians.
7th and F Streets, NW
A walking tour featuring the sites where Whitman lived and worked while living in D.C. led by Martin Murray and Craig Howell.
Catholic University’s Hannan Hall, 620 Michigan Ave., NE
Poetry reading by David Bottoms, winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, and Patricia Gray, Saundra Rose Maley, Judith McCombs, Kim Roberts and Richard Sharp.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Public Library, 901 G St., NW
Sherwood Smith reads selections of Whitman’s work and talks about his connection to D.C.
Brookland Visitor’s Center, 3450 9th St., NE
The Brookland Poetry Series looks at Whitman’s work and the poets that he influences, especially the Beat poets. Hosted by Michael Gushue and gay spirituality and civil rights advocate Dan Vera.
Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St., NW
A tour of the historic cemetery which includes the grave of Whitman’s partner Peter Doyle and many of the Civil War soldiers he befriended. Led by Martin Murray and Steven Carson.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capital St., SE
Gay poet Mark Doty and Anne Waldman celebrate Whitman’s birthday with this reading of their and his work. $10.
Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I St., NW
Luncheon and poetry reading featuring David McAleavey, Clarinda Harriss, Linda Joy Burke and Robert L. Giron read from their own and Whitman’s work. $15.
Library of Congress Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave., SE
Whitman birthday celebration featuring Robert Aubry Davis reading from Leaves of Grass.