“Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.” -- Walt Whitman
For LGBTQ History Month, HRC is remembering Walt Whitman, an LGBTQ poet whose works celebrate democracy, love and the rich diversity of the American experience.
This year, we mark Whitman’s 200th birthday. To honor him, cities, libraries and communities across the country are sharing Whitman’s story and work, and lifting up how his messages of love and unity still resonate today.
In May, city-wide celebrations of Whitman in Washington, D.C., commemorated the poet’s time and legacy in our nation’s capital. As part of the D.C. bicentennial celebration, the Library of Congress -- which has the most extensive array of Whitman and Whitman-related collections in the world -- held a series of exhibits and public programs, as well as a digital crowdsourcing campaign, to showcase the trove. The exhibits highlighted aspects of Whitman’s life and poetry, including his time in D.C.
Whitman lived in D.C. for 10 years and is perhaps best remembered for working as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. Whitman comforted the sick and the dying, sitting with them, helping them write letters to their families and providing them with what small gifts he could.
The Library’s exhibits also touched on Whitman’s relationship with Peter Doyle, an Irish immigrant and streetcar driver, who is believed by many to have been the love of Whitman’s life.
Doyle described their first encounter: “We were familiar at once -- I put my hand on his knee -- we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip -- in fact went all the way back with me... From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends.”
Whitman would write of his war-time experiences and his love of Peter Doyle throughout his masterwork, “Leaves of Grass.” He was one of the first American poets to openly celebrate same-sex love and attraction, writing of his “friends, his lovers” and the “love of comrades.” Sadly, his celebration of queer love and the sensuality that infuse “Leaves of Grass” would ultimately lead to his firing from the Department of the Interior after the work’s publication.
Whitman died in 1892, but his work lives on today. He continues to inspire future generations of writers and poets in the U.S. and around the world. His poetry still carries with it the wisdom and beauty that challenge all of us to acknowledge and embrace our multitudes -- as LGBTQ people, as Americans and as global citizens.
As Whitman Exhibit Curator Barbara Bair told HRC, “He's a poet for everyone. He's a poet for LGBTQ people, he's a poet for people who love nature, he's a poet of democracy. And his poetry never grows old.”