Overbeck History Lecture Series
Walt Whitman in Washington
Washington Friends of Walt Whitman
Naval Lodge Hall
330 Pennsylvania Ave., S.E.
Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
RSVP requested to firstname.lastname@example.org
Local historian Martin Murray is founder of the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman, a group that conducts tours showing spots in the District that are significant to the late, great poet who was spent a large portion of his adult life here from 1862-1873.
On Tuesday, Murray will lecture at the Naval Lodge Hall in a discussion of the gay poet’s many roles here. Here are a few highlights from a lengthy conversation with Murray this week about why the “Leaves of Grass” author still matters. His comments have been heavily edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How did you come to be so interested in Whitman?
MURRAY: I was introduced to him in 1976 when I was a student at Rutgers. It was the year of the Bicentennial and there was a series on famous Americans. One was on Walt Whitman in which he was portrayed by Rip Torn. I was in college and coming to terms with my own sexuality. The portrayal was very sensitively drawn, but they made it clear he was gay… which I thought was pretty forward for 1976. I hadn’t studied him much in school, but after that, I was very interested.
BLADE: You’ve done some substantial research on Whitman. What are some of the things you’ve discovered?
MURRAY: I had been interested in his role as a journalist during the war and I found about a dozen additional pieces of Whitman’s journalism that hadn’t been noted before. … Also in some of the things he jotted down during his time visiting wounded soldiers, he would often jot down their names or initials. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about them, so by doing some research at the National Archives where military service records are held and pension records as well, I was able to find a lot. This was about 15 years ago. … I also wrote a biographical essay on (Whitman confidante and probably lover) Peter Doyle that was published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.
BLADE: Whitman lived here many years. What was his view of his life in Washington?
MURRAY: He was basically here from the last week of December of 1862 until July of 1873. As the war was ending, he got more secure government work. … He had a lot of connections here and worked until he had a stroke in January of 1873 in his office at the Treasury Building where he worked in the Attorney General’s office. He was basically paralyzed I believe on the left side. He tried as best he could to recover but eventually realized he couldn’t stay, so he went to Camden, New Jersey where he lived with his brother. … I think he would have stayed if his health had allowed.
BLADE: Do we know if there were any networks of gay men in Washington at the time or if they had any way of finding each other outside of random encounters?
MURRAY: It’s really hard to say. There probably were networks like that but trying to find firm evidence of it is really difficult. We know Whitman was writing poems about romance among gay soldiers, that there were references in the press suggesting his homosexuality and people he was intimate with in D.C., but it’s hard to say if there was any kind of gay society in that day.
BLADE: What significance does it hold for gays today to have historical figures such as Whitman be recognized as gay forefathers?
MURRAY: Even with the great progress that’s been made, there’s always a struggle, always something to grapple with when we start to realize we’re gay. People need to be able to look back and realize we’re not freaks. People of my kind have always existed and there’s a continuity there that goes all the way back through recorded time.