Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 13 August 1874
Date: August 13, 1874
Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.01837
Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Ashley Lawson, Eder Jaramillo, John Schwaninger, Caterina Bernardini, and Nicole Gray
Guntersville, Marshall Co, Alabama,
Meltonsville (my home office)
Mr. Walt Whitman—
I this day saw in the paper "Hearth and Home" of New York a short editorial stating that Congress had caused the discharge from public service of many persons who were brought into distress thereby, and your name was mentioned as one of the number. This last concerns me seriously and causes me to [write?] to a complete stranger.
I wish first to amuse you a little, then to acquaint myself with your real situation, and lastly to see if I can be of service to you if you are really in distress.
A Narrative—About five years ago I read in the Louisville (K.Y.) Courier-Journal a notice of the death of Walt Whitman a Poet. Of that notice I remembered only a few words. Afterwards occasionally saw humorous poems or would-be poems about current events "in the style of Walt Whitman". About that time I also, obeying an "impulse" or "law of my being" which was effectual if not "irresistible" went for a Poet for my county. Yes, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and myself blazed forth on a world [for?] a county in the same otherwise eventful year 1870. Last winter I [saw?] a short item in a paper making me suspect that Walt might still be in "a state of probation". Again this summer learned in my backwoods hermit home that Walt's Poems were in books, and that "English critics consider him the greatest Poet of America." Accordingly I sent some money to a New York Bookseller and got "Leaves of Grass" and "As a strong bird on pinions free".
[Here?] comes in the fun. I had expected something strange, but the work was so very different from anything else I had met with it was for a short hour or so utterly incomprehensible. In my disappointment and vexation I then said to my family "the Publisher who [would?] publish and the Bookseller who [sells?] such a book ought to be hung for swindling. In a little time with the help of the Preface in the small volume and the Publishers notes at the end of the same I got a hint or clue to the understanding of your work. I think myself exceedingly good tho' at solving literary puzzles and would probably have soon divined the mystery from the work alone. I assure you I was soon "cavorting" round and asserting that the $3 book was worth $50 if it could not be replaced, (Now Laugh)
[I?] think your works are not known here. And thou great man! I wish to inquire can it be that your books are not sold [in?] such number as to support you without help of or employment of the U.S. Government.
I have been aiming to send for Burroughs' Notes—W. W. as Poet and Person [but?] have not yet done so.)
Finally, for brevity, I will ask you to write to [as as?] strange a man as you can be, and believe me I think I can do you some service if you need.
John Newton Johnson
The Hermit, eccentric farmer
and self-styled "Philosopher and Poet".
John Newton Johnson was a colorful and eccentric self-styled philosopher from rural Alabama. There are about thirty letters from Johnson in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919 (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), but unfortunately there are no replies extant, although Whitman wrote frequently for a period of approximately fifteen years. When Johnson wrote for the first time on August 13, 1874, he was forty-two, "gray as a rat," as he would say in another letter from September 13: a former Rebel soldier with an income between $300 and $400 annually, though before the war he had been "a slaveholding youthful 'patriarch.'" He informed Whitman in the August letter that during the past summer he had bought Leaves of Grass and after a momentary suspicion that the bookseller should be "hung for swindling," he discovered the mystery of Whitman's verse, and "I assure you I was soon 'cavorting' round and asserting that the $3 book was worth $50 if it could not be replaced, (Now Laugh)." He offered either to sell Whitman's poetry and turn over to him all profits or to lend him money. On October 7, 1874, after describing Guntersville, Alabama, a town near his farm from which he often mailed his letters to Whitman, he commented: "Orthodoxy flourishes with the usual lack of flowers or fruit." See also Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1915), 125–130.