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Walt Whitman described William Douglas O’Connor as his “dear, dear friend, and stanch (probably stanchest) literary believer and champion. . .” (Loving, 1)

O’Connor was born in Boston in 1833. He was a firebrand abolitionist and passionate supporter of  liberal causes.  At the age of 20, he became the associate editor of The Commonwealth, a daily paper of the anti-slavery Free-Soil movement. He was an editor of the original Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia from 1854-1860.

He had literary ambitions of his own, writing two unremarkable novels “Harrington” and “The Ghost” in the 1860s.  Seeking financial security, he moved to Washington and took on several  federal government jobs in the 1860s and 1870s, including a stint as the librarian of the Treasury Department.

Whitman and O’Connor became friends in 1860 when the two were working together at the firm of Thayer and Eldridge in Boston. They met again in Washington during the Civil War, when Whitman rushed down from Brooklyn to look for his brother (who was wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg). Whitman decided to stay in Washington to help the wounded and lived with O’Connor and his family for his first five months in the capital.

O’Connor used his connections to get Whitman a clerkship at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an undemanding position that gave him plenty of time to write. Whitman was soon fired when the puritanical Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read a copy of Leaves of Grass he found on Whitman’s desk (Reynolds, 455).

Outraged by his friend’s treatment, Douglas wrote The Good Gray Poet in 1866.  The self-published 46-page pamphlet passionately defended Whitman’s controversial poetry, argued for literary freedom, and lambasted Harlan for his dismissal of Whitman (Loving, 1).  His admiration for the poet is difficult to overstate.

Who, knowing him, does not regard him as a man of the highest spiritual culture? I have never know one of greater and deeper religious feeling. To call one like him good, seems an impertinence. In our sweet country phrase, he is one of the God’s men. And as I write these hurried and broken memoranda—as his strength and sweetness of nature, his moral health, his richness, his courage, his deep and varied knowledge of life and men, his calm wisdom, his singular and beautiful boy-innocence, his personal majesty, his rough scorn of mean actions, his magnetic and exterminating anger on due occasions—all that I have seen and heard of him, the testimony of associates, the anecdotes of friends, the remembrance of hours with him that should be immortal, the traits, lineaments, incidents of his life and being—as they come crowding into memory—his seems to me a character which only the heroic pen of Plutarch could record, and which Socrates himself might emulate of envy (Loving, 167).

Two years later, O’Connor would take his admiration a step further when published “The Carpenter,” a short story in which he compared Whitman to Christ (Reynolds, 463). O’Connor’s wife, Nelly shared in her husband’s devotion to the poet–she even wrote Whitman a letter professing her love for him in 1870.

In 1872, Whitman and O’Connor had a falling out that lasted ten years. Some scholars speculate the two men were having a homosexual quarrel, though there is no evidence to prove they were lovers. Reynolds proposes that the reason for the separation was an intense fight over black voting rights. O’Connor believed passionately in civil rights for freed slaves, Whitman was opposed (Reynolds, 493).

During his quarrel with Whitman, O’Connor also separated from his wife. He continued to defend Whitman’s works. O’Connor reconciled with both his wife and Whitman before his death in 1888, three weeks before Whitman’s seventieth birthday (Reynolds, 543).

Works Cited

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman’s Champion. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978. Print.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage

Books, 1996. Print.

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  1. Avatar of lizmoser lizmoser says:

    It’s strange to see O’Connor’s argument with Whitman turn into a split up with his wife–both seemed to idolize Whitman to an incredible degree. Even stranger is Whitman’s lack of support for black civil rights. It sheds new light on the limitations of his “democratic” ideal.

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