March 12, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Scandalous Facts About Walt Whitman, The Indulgent Poet

Walt Whitman was “America’s poet” for much of the 19th and 20th century. But the suggestive subtext of his stanzas was too problematic for some readers. 

1. His Poems Were Problematic

To his fans, Walt Whitman was synonymous with everything American: unbridled freedom, boundless opportunity and heedless optimism. But there's another side to the story. To his detractors, Whitman was nothing more than a dangerous predator, cloaking his carnal desires in pretty words. 

We may never know the truth buried between the lines of his surprisingly controversial poems.

walt whitman

2. He Was “Restless And Unhappy”

Walt Whitman Jr. was the second of nine children born to Quaker parents in Long Island, New York in May 1819. His troubled childhood almost certainly contributed to his troubled adult years and apparent preoccupation with youth. His family moved around a lot because of their poor financial situation and he described those years as “restless and unhappy”. But it wasn't all bad...

Walt Whitman's mother, LouisaLibrary of Congress, Getty Images

3. He Got A Kiss From A Prince

The only highlight of his childhood was a kiss. While attending a public celebration at the Brooklyn Apprentices' Library, Whitman’s father hoisted him in the air. The guest of honor, the Marquis de Lafayette, gave the child Whitman a peck on the cheek. It had a bigger impact than anyone could have imagined.Portrait of Gilbert Du Motier Marquis De Lafayette in uniformJoseph-Désiré Court, Wikimedia Commons

4. He Missed Out On His Childhood

Whitman dropped out of school at the tender age of 11 to help his parents make ends meet. He would spend the rest of his life trying to recapture his lost boyhood—sometimes in troublesome ways. In the meantime, however, he worked as a printer’s devil for the Patriot newspaper, immediately falling in love with the world of words.

But people weren't used to the kinds of words that Whitman wanted to use...

Walt Whitman portrait at younger age in suitInternet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons


5. He Started His Own Newspaper

Whitman displayed an early talent for writing. He published his first works of poetry anonymously while he was just a teenager working in New York’s publishing district. Eventually, he managed to start his own newspaper, the Long-Islander, and grew enough circulation to sell it at a profit. He felt he had a lot to give.

Walt Whitman, Age 28, portraitWalt Whitman Historic Site, Wikimedia Commons

11. He Was An Abolitionist

Though his more deviant interests shocked society, not all of Whitman’s proclivities harmed his reputation. For one, as a proud American, Whitman was a staunch abolitionist and he was willing to put his words into action. While working as the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, the owner of the newspaper fired him for his anti-slavery stance. 

It wouldn't be the last time his radically liberal ideas landed him in hot water.

Walt Whitman portrait in suitLibrary of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

12. He Wrote A Guide For Men

One of Whitman’s first books wasn’t exactly a work of literary genius. Under the pen name Mose Velsor, he wrote and published Manly Health and Training. It was something of a self-help guide that critics described as “quirky,” “over the top,” “pseudoscientific” and “wacky”. Those were, to put it mildly, understatements.

Walt Whitman portrait in suitUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

13. He Suggested The Carnivore Diet

Whitman marketed his book as something of a guide to manhood. Some of his suggestions were perfectly mundane, such waking up early. Others were absolutely bizarre. He suggested that men grow beards, sunbathe in their birthday suits, take cold daily plunges and eat meat “almost exclusively”. It was not, thankfully, his finest work.

Walt Whitman, portrait in suitLibrary of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

14. He Published His Magnum Opus

In 1855, Whitman followed up his strange self-help manuscript for men with the work that would define his career—and ruin his reputation. In the five years between 1850 and 1855, he experimented with poetic styles (and lovers). 

The end result was Leaves of Grass. It was by far and away the most scandalous literary debut of the time.

Walt Whitman in white shirtMathew Benjamin Brady, Wikimedia Commons

15. His Brother Wasn’t A Fan

Over the course of his life, Whitman was closest with his brother, George. As close as they were, however, George had some scathing words for his brother. When Whitman published his collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, George simply shrugged it off. He said that he didn’t believe that his brother’s opus was even “worth reading”.

Others felt the same.

A portrait of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), taken in Washington, D.C.Library of Congress, Getty Images


16. He Didn’t Want To Take Credit

Whitman paid to print the first copies of Leaves of Grass himself. But he was somewhat reluctant to take the credit for the work that he likely knew would cause a public outrage. He didn’t name himself on the cover of the book but, instead, had a portrait of himself placed within its pages. Still, the book was not exactly a success.

Walt Whitman By Mathew Brady in suitMathew Benjamin Brady, Wikimedia Commons

17. He Had Fans In High Places

Leaves of Grass might have passed into obscurity if it hadn’t been for Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous essayist. After reading Whitman’s book of poetry, Emerson wrote a long, glowing letter to Whitman. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson wrote to Whitman while gushing about it to all of his literary friends.

Of course, a “great” career wasn’t the same as a “good” career.

Ralph Waldo Emerson portrait in suitJosiah Johnson Hawes, Wikimedia Commons

18. He Was Obsessive

Not everyone loved Whitman’s book of poetry as much as Emerson did. Many found Whitman’s style and subject matter to be inappropriate and “obsessively phallocentric”. Some said that it even bordered on the outright smutty, calling it “trashy, profane and obscene”. But the harsh criticism didn’t just end with Whitman’s verse.

Close-up and focus on the book title Natalya Gregory, Shutterstock

19. He Was Pretentious

For the delicate sensibilities of mid-19th century America, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass simply went too far in its subject matter. As a result, Whitman’s own reputation took a drastic hit. The geologist Peter Lesley, for example, went so far as to call Whitman a “pretentious ***”. 

Sleazy as he was, Whitman was not without his redeeming qualities.

John Peter Lesley portrait looking leftTaylor & Brown, Wikimedia Commons

20. His Brother Was On The Front Lines

Even though his brother wasn’t terribly fond of his writing, Whitman still loved him. So, when Whitman discovered that George had enlisted to fight on the front lines of the Union Army, he was horrified—and he was right to be.

Whitman At About Fifty worriedG. Frank E. Pearsall, Wikimedia Commons

21. He Read The Bad News

Shortly before Christmas in 1862, Whitman read a list of the latest fallen Union soldiers. His heart sank to his feet when he read “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore”. Thinking that it had possibly been a typo, he packed up his things in a panicked fit and embarked on a perilous journey south to find his brother. Or whatever he believed was left of him.

Whitman And Dukett in carriage travelingUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons


22. He Walked “All Day And Night”

Whitman’s journey south was fraught with perils. Within days of leaving New York, someone relieved him of his wallet. Then he walked “all day and night, unable to ride”. But it was all worth it in the end, because he found a miracle waiting for him: his brother George, alive and well. 

Apparently, the papers had gotten it wrong. His brother was alive and well, except for a superficial cut on his cheek.

Walt Whitman, seatedUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

23. He Couldn’t Hold Down A Job

Whitman spent most of the rest of his career bouncing around from government post to government post. Generally, when one of his superiors learned that he was the author of the salacious Leaves of Grass, they would fire him. Fortunately, Whitman’s many defenders always managed to get him a new job. And there was one in particular that he liked.

Walt Whitman portrait wearing a hatThomas Dewing, Wikimedia Commons

24. He Fancied Unordinary Things

Whitman eventually landed at the Attorney General’s office. His job involved interviewing former Confederate servicemen—many of them just poor, working class teenagers—seeking a presidential pardon. He later wrote of the job, “There are real characters among them, and you know I have a fancy for anything out of the ordinary”.

He fancied them alright.

Walt Whitman in white shirtLibrary of Congress, Picryl

25. He Met A “Young Giant”

During the Civil War, Whitman had also worked as a nurse. But he spent more time ogling the injured combatants’ bodies than he did tending to their wounds. He called one Confederate fighter, Oscar Cunningham, “a handsome young giant” who “ought to have been taken by a sculptor to model for an emblematical figure of the west”.

Residence of Walt WhitmanLibrary of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

26. He Caused Speculation

Leaves of Grass was such an obscene collection of poems that people questioned Whitman’s curious obsession with the young male form. While most people whispered about it in hushed tones, however, fellow writer, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, was less cagey in his disgust. In 1855, Griswold openly suggested that Whitman was guilty of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians”.

Rufus Wilmot Griswold in suit sitting on a chairNYPL, Wikimedia Commons

27. His Real Desires Were A Mystery

One of Whitman’s contemporaries, the English poet John Addington Symonds, grew tired of trying to read between the lines of Whitman’s highly suggestive poems. He was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery that was Whitman’s romantic interests. In a series of letters, Symonds asked the question that others had only whispered in hushed tones.

John Addington Symonds in suit thinking looking at the frontCarlo Orsi, Wikimedia Commons


28. He Denied Everything

Symonds asked Whitman, “In your conception of Comradeship, do you contemplate the possible intrusion of those [intimate] emotions and actions which no doubt do occur between men?” Whitman’s full-throated reply to Symonds’ blunt questioning has since left historians scratching their heads—and scouring family trees for illegitimate offspring.

John Addington Symonds in suitEveleen Myers, Wikimedia Commons

29. He Had Many Children

In his lengthy and unequivocal refutation of Symonds’ suggestions, Whitman called the accusations “morbid inferences” and “damnable”. He even claimed—rather implausibly—to have fathered no less than six illegitimate children. But, behind closed doors and to those whom he trusted, Whitman chose his words a lot less carefully.

Walt Whitman with Jeannette and Nigel Cholmelly-JonesLibrary of Congress, Picryl

30. He Got The Boys

Whitman had to at least keep up appearances that he was a decent man. But he was less guarded in conversations with his assistant, Horace Traubel. When Traubel asked Whitman what he got out of nursing, Whitman replied, “Well—I got the boys for one thing: the boys: thousands of them: they were, they are, they will be mine”.

He seemed to have a way with them.

Horace TraubelArthur Clifton Goodwin, Wikimedia Commons

31. He Fooled The Teens

Whitman confessed almost everything to Traubel—including how he groomed his young lovers. “Young fellows seem rather bowled over by me,” Whitman bragged. “I fool ’em for a time, when they’re in their teens, but when they grow up they can no longer be deceived”. Which is why he always seemed to keep the boys on rotation.

Horace Traubel in shirt and bow tieUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

32. He Was Wild For Wilde

Other famous writers of the time shared more than just a gift for words with Whitman. After Oscar Wilde met the scandalous poet in 1882, he had a titillating story to tell. Wilde left Whitman’s to meet with the author and activist George Cecil Ives and spilled the tea. “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” Wilde told Ives.

Oscar Wilde at Oxford in 1876Hills & Saunders, Wikimedia Commons

33. He Met A Great Love

Whitman met the presumed love of his life, Peter Doyle, on a cold and stormy night in Washington D.C. Doyle was then just a young, 21-year old streetcar conductor and veteran of the Confederacy. He also happened to be completely illiterate. But despite their differences, Whitman fell for Doyle—as long as his youth lasted.

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, circa 1869M. P. Rice,Wikimedia Commons

34. He Went To The End Of The Line

Doyle described how he met Whitman on that night. As he explained it, something in him simply felt drawn to the poet—and vice versa. “We were familiar at once—I put my hand on his knee—we understood". Whitman didn’t bother to get off at his stop, but rather took Doyle's streetcar to the end of the line and, presumably, to his bed.

Walt Whitman sitting on a chair facing leftLibrary of Congress, Picryl

35. He Found His Muse

Whatever transpired on that cold and stormy night in 1866 inspired Whitman like nothing else had. Despite the more than 20-year age gap between them, the love that Whitman had for Doyle inspired him to write his most famous poem of all, Calamus. Unfortunately, his beloved muse couldn’t stay young forever—and neither could he.

Walt Whitman portrait facing the frontPearsall, Frank, Picryl

36. He Was A Great Athlete

Whitman was 45 years old when he met Doyle. But, according to Doyle, the bawdy bard was in the prime of his life. In an interview years later, Doyle recalled how Whitman was in their years together. “He was an athlete—great, great. I knew him to do wonderful lifting, running, walking”. 

He also did some great writing as well, of course.

Walt Whitman portrait facing frontLibrary of Congress, Picryl

37. His Lover Grew Too Old

The love story between Whitman and Doyle had about as many chapters in it as Leaves of Grass had editions. Whitman never married, but his relationship with Doyle was, at least from appearances, as close as he ever came. Eventually, however, Whitman’s great athleticism faded, as did Doyle’s youth.

Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweaterLibrary of Congress, Picryl

38. He Had “Thick” Friends

Whitman had a preference for boys and young men from poor backgrounds—like him. One such boy was Bill Duckett, an unassuming 15-year old who moved into a house just down the street from Whitman. The two became close friends with Whitman even describing their relationship as “thick”. 

They were, according to some sources, inseparable.

Walt Whitman and Bill DuckettNew York Public Library, Picryl

39. He Housed Poor Boys

Various sources describe Whitman as either an opportunistic predator or a big brother to wayward young men. With Bill Duckett, it was almost impossible to tell the difference. Whitman helped the boy out when his family ran out of money, and even had Duckett and his family as boarders. 

What's not clear, however, is if Duckett had his own sleeping chambers, if you catch our drift.

An 1881 portrait of Walt Whitman, on a visit to BostonLibrary of Congress, Getty Images

40. He Had A Place To Stay

Whitman also frequently visited Timber Creek. But he probably wasn’t there to draw inspiration from the scenery for his next poem. He struck up an almost certainly romantic relationship with the 18-year old son of the family whose house he stayed in. The young and strapping Harry Stafford was, potentially, his second great love.

Walt Whitman, full-length portrait, seated, facing slightly leftLibrary of Congress, Picryl

41. He Nearly Proposed

Whitman gave Stafford a ring as a symbol of their…bond? But their relationship, whatever it was, was definitely no cake walk. Whenever they had a falling out—which was often—Whitman would take back the ring. Or Stafford would throw it at him. Either way, it was a dangerously passionate relationship.

Walt Whitman, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing leftLibrary of Congress, Picryl

42. He Had A “Son”

When he wasn’t with Doyle or Duckett—or the small battalion of other boys he considered “friends”—Whitman frequently traveled around with Stafford. He referred to Stafford variously as his “adopted son” and “nephew”. But they were closer than any father and son should be. 

Allegedly, Whitman and Stafford shared a bed whenever they were together.

Walt Whitman With Harry StaffordAugustus Morand, Wikimedia Commons

43. He Still Loved Stafford

Despite their turbulent relationship—carnal or not—Whitman and Stafford had something real. There was clearly a strong connection between them. Stafford even wrote to Whitman about the ring, saying, “You know when you put it on there was but one thing to part it from me, and that was death”. Stafford would have to get in line.

Walt Whitman sitting on an armchair at homeLibrary of Congress, Picryl

44. He Had Some Childhood Trauma

The troublesome aspects of Whitman’s behavior as an adult could have started when he was just a child. Charles Shively, an author and Whitman biographer, has made some wild claims about Whitman’s early years. In 1987’s Calamus Lovers, Shively wrote that Whitman’s first sensual experiences happened within his own home.

Walt Whitman, Sr.Library of Congress, Picryl

45. He Loved His Brothers—Maybe Too Much

In the explosive and scandalous pages of Calamus Lovers, Shively made some truly sordid accusations. Shively alleged that Whitman had carnal relations with his own brothers. But, outside of his own speculation and conjecture, Shively didn’t present any evidence to support these wild claims. 

Whitman was more of a romantic anyway.

Walt Whitman portrait in suit and hatJ. W. Rochlitz, Wikimedia Commons

46. His First Lover Broke His Heart

Long before Doyle, Duckett, Stafford, and all the others, there was Fred Vaughan. He was, potentially, Whitman’s first “lover”. No one knows too much about the nature of their relationship except that it had a lasting impact on Whitman and colored his later relationships with young men and boys. But not for the better.Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hatLibrary of Congress, Picryl

47. He Felt Guilt And Shame

In his earlier years, Whitman showed some guilt and shame over his more infernal desires. Whatever happened between himself and Vaughan left a callous around his heart. In a private note to himself, sometime shortly before he met Doyle, Whitman wrote, “Depress the adhesive nature/It is an excess—making life a torment/All this diseased, feverish disproportionate adhesiveness/Remember Fred Vaughan”.

“Adhesive” was an early 19th century code word for gay relations.

Walt Whitman in suitThe U.S. National Archives, Wikimedia Commons

48. He Had Some Lady Friends

Never one to discriminate, Whitman also reportedly had numerous female lovers. The most famous of these was Ellen Grey, an actress in New York. When he moved to Camden, New Jersey, he referred to Grey as “an old sweetheart of mine”. There’s no telling how many of these old sweethearts—male and female—that Whitman had. Especially because he lied constantly.

Walt Whitman in coatLibrary of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

49. He Admonished Drinkers

Whitman wavered from a staunch advocate of temperance to a self-confessed bleary-eyed sot. His first novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate, was a temperance novel meant to dissuade the consumption of booze and other intoxicants. He would later admit to hating the novel and its moral message of abstinence from a good drink.

Probably because he was a hypocrite.

Walt Whitman, older sitting on a chairLibrary of Congress, Picryl

50. He Was A Total Hypocrite

Years later, Whitman called his debut novel “damned rot”. He went on to confess that he had only written the novel as a way to make money when he needed it, which, given his spending habits, was often. Worse yet, he revealed his hypocrisy when he confessed that he had written the novel on temperance while, himself, on a three-day long bender.

But as he got older, he just couldn’t drink like he used to.

Walt Whitman Full length portrait, seated, facing front; on fake rockLibrary of Congress, Picryl

51. He Was Paralyzed

Whitman had once been the very image of health and vitality. But age left him badly scarred. In 1873, when he was just 53 years old, he suffered a terrible stroke that left him partially paralyzed and almost totally bedridden. The stroke was so bad that he had to move in with his brother, George. In fact, the whole Whitman family was having a hard time.

Photograph of American poet Walt WhitmanNYPL Digital Gallery, Picryl

52. He Was Depressed

Later that same year, in May, Whitman suffered another setback. Shortly before his 54th birthday, his ailing mother finally drew her last breath. The double-whammy of his stroke and his mother’s sad passing was more than his poetic heart could handle and he fell into a deep depression. He didn’t even have Doyle to console him.

Walt Whitman facing leftMarcelo Noah, Flickr

53. He Couldn’t See The Man He Once Loved

There had been a time (seven years to be exact) when Whitman and Doyle had been inseparable. However, as their lives changed and grew, they had drifted apart. Because of Whitman’s paralytic stroke, he was no longer able to travel to meet with Doyle. But, bedridden as he was, he had all of the time in the world to write.

Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated by windowLibrary of Congress, Picryl

54. He Finally Finished Leaves of Grass

Whitman finally composed the last edition of Leaves of Grass in 1891. He finally felt that he had finished the work he had tried so hard to perfect in edition after edition. “L. of G. at last complete,” he wrote, “after 33 [years] of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & [combat], young & old”.

Walt Whitman Birthplace MuseumJeremy Thompson, Flickr

55. He Was Suffering In The End

Whitman finished the final edition of Leaves of Grass just in time. By 1890, he was at last too feeble to even lift a fork and knife to feed himself. “I suffer all the time,” he wrote, “I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony—monotony—monotony—in pain”. At the very least, he went out doing what he liked most.

Walt Whitman's David, Flickr

56. He Just Liked to Look

Even as he was drawing his last breaths, Whitman still indulged in his favorite pastime: admiring young men. Shortly before his passing in March 1892, Whitman posed for a photograph with his male nurse, Warren Fritzinger. Some of his final words to Traubel were, “I like to look at him—he is health to look at: young, strong, lithe”.

Whitman, Walt (1819-1892) and his male nurse Fritzenger.Charles E. Feinberg, Picryl

57. He Got A Hero’s Farewell

Despite all of the scandals and salacious gossip, Whitman's words transcended his actions, and he received a hero’s farewell. When he passed at the age of 72 in Camden, New Jersey, those who admired his poetry showed up in force. They covered his oak coffin in so many flowers that it was barely visible. One person, in particular, mourned him.

Walt Whitman Birthplace MuseumJeremy Thompson, Flickr

58. He Left Nothing Behind

Despite their many years of companionship, Whitman didn’t leave anything to Doyle in his final will except for a head full of memories and a heart full of grief. Still, somehow, Doyle got his hands on one of Whitman’s old coats. “I now and then put it on,” Doyle reminisced. “I do not ever for a minute lose the old man”.

Portrait of Walt Whitman by Thomas EakinsThomas Eakins, Wikimedia Commons

6. He Was A Tawdry Teacher

After selling his newspaper, Whitman found work as a teacher. If we are to believe the rumors, he taught the children a lot more than he was supposed to. A local preacher in Southold, New York came forward with terrible accusations against Whitman that would have him fleeing for his life. 

But not before the townsfolk could exact some justice.

Southold, New YorkUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

7. He May Have Violated A Student

Soon after Whitman arrived, the local preacher reportedly made an extremely dangerous accusation: buggery. Worst of all, he claimed that Whitman had performed the act with one of the students he was meant to educate and protect. After publicly defaming Whitman with these accusations, there was only one course of justice.Walt Whitman At 36Dodd, Mead and Co, Wikimedia Commons

8. He Was Covered In Feathers

For the alleged act with a pupil, the good people of Southold, New York chased Whitman out of town. But not before doling out some justice of their own. Allegedly, they tarred and feathered Whitman as punishment for his wrongdoing. But the only problem is, some parts of this story don't quite add up.

Walt Whitman in shirt and a hatHollyer Samuel, Wikimedia Commons

9. He Was Totally Innocent—Kind Of

It’s entirely possible that the story of Whitman’s tarring and feathering in Southold, New York was a fabrication concocted by his detractors. Notably, Whitman frequently vacationed in the town that had supposedly chased him away, even after the alleged incident. 

By while the tar and feathers may be apocryphal, the accusations are a lot harder to dismiss.

Walt Whitman portrait in suitWalt Whitman, Wikimedia Commons

10. He Wrote His Confession

A few years after the “Southold episode”, Whitman published a potentially incriminating short story called, The Child’s Champion. In the story, Whitman “marvels” at the “beauty” of a young 13-year old boy. He wrote, “we meet with young beings, strangers, who seem to touch the fountains of our love, and draw forth their swelling waters”.

That was not a particularly subtle euphemism.

Walt Whitman in suit sitting on a chairLibrary of Congress, Picryl


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