Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Sawyer, Thomas P. (b. ca. 1843)
Author:
Kantrowitz, Arnie
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although Walt Whitman was attracted to many of the young men he met in the Civil War hospital wards, his feelings for Sergeant Thomas P. Sawyer might best be described as an infatuation. The two men met early in 1863 while Whitman was nursing Sawyer's friend Lewy Brown, and soon Whitman was in full pursuit.

Whitman's letters to Sawyer were full of ardor, declaring that no other comrade but Sawyer suited him "to a dot" (Whitman 92). He proposed that after the war he and Sawyer and Brown might all live together, declaring that Sawyer had his love "in life and death forever" and assuring the young soldier that "my soul could never be entirely happy, even in the world to come, without you, dear comrade" (93). He made a point of mentioning that Brown had given him long kisses, implying that Sawyer might wish to do the same, but cautiously declaring: "I do not expect you to return for me the same degree of love I have for you" (107).

Sawyer was a soapmaker from Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose reserved Yankee manner and near illiteracy would not have permitted him to respond in kind, even had he been so disposed. More likely, he was bemused by the passionate attentions of this older man, whose interests he did not share.

Before Sawyer left for his military post, Whitman prepared a package with a shirt and a pair of drawers, hoping that Sawyer would "be wearing around his body something from me" (Whitman 93) which would contribute to his comfort, but Sawyer never came by to pick up the package. In a letter to Brown, who had evidently written to him of Whitman's disappointment, Sawyer apologized for not having had the time to get the clothes, and he sent along his thanks to Whitman for a book (possibly Leaves of Grass). Eventually, in January 1864, Sawyer wrote directly to Whitman, stiltedly addressing him as "Brother," and assuring him of his friendship in less than passionate terms (Whitman 90, n86). Their correspondence faded after that, doubtless to Whitman's sad dismay.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Shively, Charley. Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1961.


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