April 8, 2015 at 12:56 pm EST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Whitman in Washington
Garrett Peck, gay news, Washington Blade

Washington-based author Garrett Peck on the Dupont Circle North entrance escalator where a quote by Walt Whitman is prominently inscribed. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Author speech and signing

 

One More Page Books

 

2200 N. Westmoreland St. No. 101

 

Arlington, Va.

 

Tuesday

 

7-9 p.m.

 

 

Politics & Prose

 

5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

 

April 19

 

5 p.m.

 

For other events including upcoming Walt Whitman walking tours hosted by Peck, visit garrettpeck.com.

 

Local author and historian Garrett Peck has been on a huge roll in the last few years. His first book, “Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t,” came out in 2011. Since then, he’s published five more. His latest, “Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.,” was published last week by the Charleston, S.C.-based the History Press.

Peck, who works by day as a global market intelligence analyst for Verizon, admits it’s been an intense pace. The last few years have brought “The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet” in 2009, “The Potomac River: a History & Guide” in 2012, “Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry” in 2013 and last year’s “Capital Beer: a Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C.”

“I’d just long wanted to publish,” Peck, 47, says. “I just love research, love writing, love giving the talks and doing the promotional stuff. I just kind of fell in love with the process so I kept doing it. I have a list running down my arm of ideas I want to pursue. A book a year is pretty aggressive. I’ve been told it’s insane and it kind of is, but it’s more my own pressure. I’ve got so many topics I want to pursue.”

He’s been gaining traction and good reviews. The Hill praised “Capital Beer” for Peck’s “brisk and lively prose” while the Lit Pub said he “seizes on important moments in history and livens them with 21st century insight.” He says he’s sold about 10,000 copies of his various titles so far.

The Whitman book, an idea Peck had for many years, was timed to coincide with this year’s 150th commemoration of Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, significant because Whitman highly revered the president and wrote a series of poems about him.

“He really adored the president,” Peck says. “Strongly admired him and saw him many times, though they never got the chance to actually meet. They were even in the same room once but the president was in a conversation with someone else and they didn’t actually get to meet.”

Whitman lived in Washington during the Civil War and beyond, from December, 1862 until June, 1873. Here initially to find his brother George, a Union officer wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman sensed a need and worked as a hospital volunteer — not a nurse, Peck says, as has been widely thought — who made an estimated 600 visits to between 80,000-100,000 soldiers and also continuing his legendary poetry writing including two further editions of his trademark work “Leaves of Grass” and others including “The Wound Dresser” from his work “Drum-Taps,” an 1865 publication that established him as poet laureate of the Civil War.

“It was an enormously important time in his life,” Peck says. “He was kind of infamous in a way for ‘Leaves of Grass’ by that point, but not necessarily famous. The Civil War gave him a more humanitarian purpose.”

Although scholarship widely acknowledges Whitman as a gay man now, Peck says it remained a challenging topic in his research since the word homosexual wasn’t used in print until 1892, the year of Whitman’s death.

So what was gay D.C. like then? Peck says despite there being no Dupont Circle or similar gay mecca, gays somehow managed to find each other nonetheless.

“There were bars where people would congregate and people had relationships,” Peck says. “It’s very interesting to see how these relationships developed, for instance with Walt and Peter Doyle, the … love of his life … Walt was 46 and Peter was 21, yet it was Peter who approached Walt. They were cruising each other on a streetcar, so people had ways of finding each other, even then.”

Peck says another challenge was determining to what degree, if any, Whitman was out to his friends and family, including his mother, with whom he was close. Peck says his mother “surely knew,” and argues that his closest friends “must have known.” The degree to which it might have been discussed, Peck says, is unknown.

And yes, there was straight washing happening, as one might expect. Peck points to a biography of John Burroughs, a Whitman friend in Washington, written by Burroughs’ wife, Clara Barrus, who went out of her way, Peck says, to point out — without ever saying exactly what she was talking about — that certain Whitman “controversies” were not true.

“I asked (other historians) what she was talking about,” Peck says. “They all said, ‘She was denying that Walt was gay.’ I’m like, ‘You’re shitting me.’ She was married to Burroughs, so she had access to all this great, first-hand information, yet she felt the need to address this. All the information about Peter Doyle and Walt was right there in front of her, so it’s very much like you hear people talk about global warming today not happening or the earth being only 6,000-and-some years old. People are often blind to the facts that are right there in front of them and ultimately they believe whatever they want.”

Peck says that although many books have been written on Whitman, none had focused exclusively on his Washington years. He says Whitman’s appeal and popularity remains strong because he’s widely acknowledged as “one of our classic poets” who has an “international reputation.”

“There’s a tremendous universality to what he wrote,” Peck says. “‘Leaves of Grass,’ the Lincoln poems, the more homoerotic works like “Calamus,’ and beautiful works like ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,’ which if you’ve ever got 10 minutes, look it up and read it. It’s about the Lincoln funeral. Though it never mentions Lincoln, it totally captures this moment and is just devastating, probably his last great poem, which he wrote right here in D.C.”

Walt Whitman, Garrett Peck, gay news, Washington Blade

Walt Whitman in 1869 during his years in Washington. (Photo from ‘A Life of Walt Whitman’ by Henry Bryan Binns via Wikimedia)

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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