Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 16 September 1877

Date: September 16, 1877

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.02402

Contributors to digital file: Alicia Bones, Vince Moran, Eder Jaramillo, Nicole Gray, and Elizabeth Lorang



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Meltonsville Alabama,
Sunday, September 16 1877.

Walt Whitman—

Now, the "situation" is as follows. I had by far [illegible] or larger wheat crop than [illegible] before—a [little?] [illegible] of good oats—the little [illegible] cotton, on [illegible] (most of it) than I usually plant, [proving?] tolerably well—"rust" beginning now (rust [illegible] ate). On all poor lands about me, cotton started off very slowly, but since the end of an unprecedented drouth lasting through May, the "season" [illegible] been, right about me, absolute perfection and the cotton couldn't help climbing and climbing till it has got to a pretty respectable size. Then as to my corn, planted on very much "spotted" ground, upon taking a "first-day loaf" with a neighbor, a week ago, I felt bound to say this corn with nearly every stalk bearing either a big ear or a good-sized "nubbin" speaks volumes for the season—Maybe it would have done you good to be there and hear how the Philosopher can "swagger" and descant and crow on fitting occasions. (However, it may be you are destined as [illegible] mode of punishments for your "sins", never to enjoy "true Free Will" by getting to enjoy [illegible] and be with the P—rather than take second choice and suffer banishment in outer darkness.) The land being mostly poor, I am surprised at the crop—I never have made a crop with so little of plowing after planting. Indeed [illegible] for 3 years past have helped as to make cultivation easy, I have had fine [illegible] to practise [illegible] only sin of resting too much.

I think I had better stop my [illegible] off the [illegible] you some facts of my spiritual or "religious" experience. Then— [illegible] thou this, I [illegible] not "taken in hand" and "indoctrinated" with ideas about "God" &c. [illegible] so early as most children. I remember well, I was beginning to walk two miles to school before the first person (the schoolmaster) put into my head the thought that the "world" was either made or needed to be made. I had accepted naturally, "normally", the self-existence and eternity of things. Of course, old people got me to accepting their "tales", but I never have been "orthodox"—have never after the common fashion said "maker" or "master" or "Creator" or "blessed Savior" or "Savior" or "the savior" or "holy Sabbath" &c &c &c I never felt that I had sinned against God, nor was "sorry".☞ They scared me tho', and made me think "God" would rather do so than not—to "play the Devil with" me. At 20 years of age, impressed by their falsehoods about experimental religion; in a time when there was no "revival", nor excitement, urgency, or favor or shield of nights darknes, the Philosopher walked up before a crowd, solitarily, and with a brave and yet reverential calmness, and joined the Methodist church "as a Seeker". I think I may say I challenged (with sufficient humbleness or modesty) God, Christ, and the Saints to ☞ fight [illegible] a fair fight.

The result was that whereas I had been a [little?] "blind", I soon began to "see" a good deal more than I had been seeing. Palpably, the saints thought we can't do much at "[casting?] out" the sort of calm, critical, healthy, philosophical "Devils". What a fall was there my countrymen!—

The subject [has?] been a life-time study with me, and I [would?] have you know that at about 39 years I "got off the fence" on the Robert Ingersoll side of the question.1 (I dont admire him boundlessly—his fancy and his tongue seem to run away with him.)

My personal experience in childhood, then, enables me to "see through" the claim that religious ideas are "innate"—they are not. ☞ If the population of the world were divided into lots of ten thousand—separated—minds a blank on the subject—and one person in each lot should think and say "perhaps the world" was "created", the others would be able to hear in time and accept the fact that perhaps &c &c

Intelligence impressed into a gnat or [illegible] and [illegible] things dimly seen [illegible] through smoke or a fog could suggest immaterial spiritual identities. add [illegible]. Let us dismiss spiritualism and immortality [illegible]) Right is that every being should enjoy all that it can enjoy without [injury?] to others.

Practical Right is [Conduct?] which permits or promotes enjoyment of [illegible] Right.

Clashing or differing [illegible] must be compromized by electing [illegible] good without regard to numbers—[stick a pin?] here.

The Perfect Judge is the [illegible], farthest-seeing man or woman or [illegible] child (as Ingersoll says children should never be whipped—suggestign that [illegible] may be found there.)

Conscience is ideas of Causes and Results.

Ideas of Safety and Interest govern the baser conscience

Satisfaction to the glorious sentiment of Love or Good-will "world without end" moves the man whom I love.

In addition, I praise Pride, Courage, and Good Sense child of Free (and plentiful) Thought—Leaves of Grass does the same. Does W.W. wish to say "in all orthodox people behold! a secret silent loathing and despair? It looks like it ought to be [illegible] they have good sense!!!— A man who is trying to be a Kosmos ought to wish to correspond (interchange) in long letters with one who certainly is a Philosopher—especially where cruel circumstances make the latter's life monotonous. Proud, and independent, but not too much because well-willed and [illegible]

[illegible] if not [illegible] W—

P.S. Let others finish specimens. Nothing but [illegible] July 2, June, March


Correspondent:
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.

Notes:

1. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]


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