Skip to main content

Walt Whitman to Peter Doyle, 21 August [1869]

Dear Pete—

I have been very sick the last three days—I dont know what to call it—it makes me prostrated & deathly weak, & little use of my limbs.1 I have thought of you, my darling boy, very much of the time. I have not been out of the house since the first day after my arrival. I had a pleasant journey through on the cars Wednesday afternoon & night—felt quite well then. My Mother & folks are all well. We are in our new house—we occupy part & rent out part. I have a nice room, where I now sit writing this. It is the latter part of the afternoon. I feel better the last hour or so. It has been extremely hot here the last two days—I see it has been so in Washington too. I hope I shall get out soon. I hanker to get out doors, & down the bay.

And now, dear Pete, for yourself. How is it with you, dearest boy—and is there any thing different with the face?2 Dear Pete, you must forgive me for being so cold the last day & evening. I was unspeakably shocked and repelled from you by that talk & proposition of yours—you know what—there by the fountain. It seemed indeed to me, (for I will talk out plain to you, dearest comrade,) that the one I loved, and who had always been so manly & sensible, was gone, & a fool & intentional murderer stood in his place. I spoke so sternly & cutting. (Though I see now that my words might have appeared to have a certain other meaning, which I didn't dream of, insulting to you, never for one moment in my thoughts.) But I will say no more of this—for I know such thoughts must have come when you was not yourself, but in a moment of derangement—& have passed away like a bad dream.

Dearest boy, I have not a doubt but you will get well, and entirely well—& we will one day look back on these drawbacks & sufferings as things long past. The extreme cases of that malady, (as I told you before) are persons that have very deeply diseased blood, probably with syphilis in it, inherited from parentage, & confirmed by themselves—so they have no foundation to build on. You are of healthy stock, with a sound constitution, & good blood—& I know it is impossible for it to continue long. My darling, if you are not well when I come back I will get a good room or two in some quiet place, (or out of Washington, perhaps in Baltimore,) and we will live together, & devote ourselves altogether to the job of curing you, & rooting the cursed thing out entirely, & making you stronger & healthier than ever. I have had this in my mind before, but never broached it to you. I could go on with my work in the Attorney General's office just the same—& we would see that your mother should have a small sum every week to keep the pot a-boiling at home.

Dear comrade, I think of you very often. My love for you is indestructible, & since that night & morning has returned more than before.

Dear Pete, dear son, my darling boy, my young & loving brother, don't let the devil put such thoughts in your mind again—wickedness unspeakable—murder, death & disgrace here, & hell's agonies hereafter3—Then what would it be afterward to the mother? What to me?—

Pete, I send you some money, by Adam's Express—you use it, dearest son, & when it is gone, you shall have some more, for I have plenty. I will write again before long—give my love to Johnny Lee,4 my dear darling boy, I love him truly—(let him read these three last lines)—Dear Pete, remember



  • 1. Walt Whitman's health had begun to deteriorate; he had written about a "severe cold" with "bad spells [of] dizziness" in his February 2–8, 1869 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. Yet in his puff in the Washington Sunday Chronicle on May 9, 1869, Walt Whitman had written about himself: "On the verge of becoming half a centenarian, he retains his accustomed health, eats his rations regularly, and keeps his weight well toward 190 pounds"; reprinted in Emory Holloway, "Whitman as His Own Press Agent," American Mercury 18 (1929), 482. [back]
  • 2. According to Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, Doyle was suffering a skin eruption popularly known as "barber's itch" and was taken by Whitman to Dr. Charles Bowen for treatment; see The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman [New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1902], 8:40–41n. Doyle's suicidal response to the skin irritation was undoubtedly associated with deep-seated feelings of guilt. [back]
  • 3. In this uncharacteristic injunction, Walt Whitman was no doubt exploiting Doyle's Catholicism. [back]
  • 4. Probably a laborer or a conductor. The 1869 Directory listed, however, a number of John Lees. [back]
Back to top