Tag Archives: Ralph E. Handy

A Walt Whitman Letter; and, What Can Be Inferred from It about Letter Writing in General


Camden [NJ]

Friday noon, 26th Sept.


Dear son Pete,

Your letter of yesterday came this forenoon—that was a rather serious runaway of cars in the tunnel a week ago—& mighty lucky to get off as you all did—Pete I got a few lines from Parker Milburn—he told me you had a very bad sore on a finger of right hand—they are plaguey bad things—I am in hopes yours will partly make up in giving you a little resting spell. I sent you “the Children of the Abbey,” an old novel that used to be all the rage—did you get it? To-day here is a great turn out & dedication of the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia—it is truly a handsome & noble building. A rain last night here, & to-day is really perfect. The Camden free masons marched by here this morning, about 250, the finest collection of men I thought I ever saw, but poor music, all brass, a lot of fat young Dutchmen, blowing as if they would burst, & making a hell of a hullabaloo—

Pete I am about the same—may be a little improved in general strength—had bad spells a good deal all the earlier part of the week—some very bad—but feel better yesterday & to-day—I am making some calculations of the cool weather—think it may be favorable to me—did not go out any yesterday—shall try to get out this afternoon a couple of hours—I don’t know a soul here,—am entirely alone—sometimes sit alone & think, for two hours on a stretch—have not formed a single acquaintance here, any ways intimate—My sister-in-law is very kind in all housekeeping things, cooks what I want, has first-rate coffee for me & something nice in the morning, & keeps me a good bed & room—All of which is very acceptable—(then, for a fellow of my size, the friendly presence & magnetism needed, somehow, is not here—I do not run foul of any)—Still I generally keep up very good heart—still think I shall get well—When I have my bad spells, I wait for them to fade out—I have got a letter from Charley Towner—I am finishing this by the open window—still in the rooms where my mother died, with all the old familiar things—but all drawing to a close, as the new house is done, & I shall move on Monday.

— Walt Whitman to Pete Doyle, 26 September 1873



This letter was written when Whitman was living in Camden, New Jersey with his brother George Whitman, a Civil War veteran, and Walt’s sister-in-law Louisa Whitman, George Whitman’s wife.

Peter George (Pete) Doyle (1843-1907) was a great friend of Walt Whitman’s and a very important person in Whitman’s emotional life.

Though the details of Whitman’s sexuality remain murky, it appears and has been asserted by Whitman biographers that Whitman and Doyle were lovers. They met in Washington, DC in 1865 when Whitman was employed there as a civil servant and Doyle was employed as a horsecar conductor. Whitman was a regular passenger on Doyle’s car.


For an excellent biographical sketch of Peter Doyle, see





I read the selected letters of Walt Whitman about 25 years ago. They were an eye opener for me.

I consider myself a very good letter writer. I got this from my family. Everyone — my parents and siblings; my maternal grandfather Ralph E. Handy; my uncle Roger H. Handy; my great-aunt Etta H. Handy; and others – seemed to know how to write a good letter. It was as if it were part of their genetic makeup.

I began writing letters at an early age – the first was one that I labored over, to my third grade teacher at the end of the school year in 1955, to wish her a happy retirement.

I learned early to have an awareness of things like audience (to whom was I writing); the required degree of formality; using personal details to bring the letter alive (what I was up to if, say, I was away during the summer and writing home); others whom I should mention as wanting to be remembered to; inside jokes and personal allusions (those that only the reader or readers would be likely to get, thereby establishing rapport and a baseline of familiarity); following conventions of respect and politeness where required; writing thank you notes; and so on.

Whitman’s letters reinforced and strengthened my awareness of the importance of all these elements of good letter writing. And, they corroborated what I already basically knew, but became acutely aware of thanks to Whitman:

the best letters are often not “literary”;

simplicity and directness are keys;

plain, homely, everyday details make a letter a live piece of human tissue instead of a bloodless specimen.

Walt Whitman’s letters are wonderful, eloquent, beautifully written. Yet, what is most notable about them – besides, and along with, their directness, lack of pretension, and sincerity — embodying all of these things – the chief thing — is their SIMPLICITY. He wrote great letters that are at the same time absolutely simple ones, so that it didn’t matter to whom he was writing, an unlettered person or an educated and/or literary minded one. It didn’t matter. He carried on a correspondence with Ralph Waldo Emerson; with English literati who admired his works; with his English admirer and would be lover Anne Gilchrist; with his mother; with his brothers George and Jeff; with his sister-in-law Martha Mitchell Whitman; with the streetcar conductor Pete Doyle; and with countless other persons familiar and not familiar to him, high and low.

Every letter of Whitman’s exhibits the qualities enumerated in the previous paragraph. He was not capable of writing otherwise. The letters lay bare his sincere, unaffected, warm and loving personality and show the joy he took from the ordinary things of life (a glorious day, a ride on an omnibus up or down Broadway; or a “capital beefsteak,” for example) — especially from human relationships. These things meant everything to him.


— Roger W. Smith

  January 2017