Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, [30?] August 1885
Date: August 30, 1885
Editorial note: The annotation, "from John Newton Johnson (suicide of his son)," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.
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.02407
Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, Kyle Barton, and Nicole Gray
Mid P.O. Alabama1
(Sent from Guntersville)
Something very near a Soliloquy.
(John Newton Johnson)
What revelations of the last 18 months!
What "joy of suffering" there from! In the summer of '80, my oldest son (of this, my second wife,) being then a well-grown, strong, and healthy boy of 17 years 4 months, took a notion he must go to Texas. He did tolerably well then for two years. He become large sized and extra strong.....A woman 2 years his senior, a sort of "heiress" (in a small way,) began to think she must have a husband; and after a failure to get another young fellow (a kinsman of ours) to come from there,) opened up a correspondence with our boy. At the same time she coquetted with another young man nearer home. Our boy came home, and seemed to become crazed for a person of no accomplishments or charms (whatever) unless a seductive pretence or fancy of attachment—while the very climax of indecision and inconstancy. In spite of all I could say—in spite of the "Body Electric" with its grand "old man, a common farmer"—in spite of all a "philosopher" could say or plead (from stores of reading & reflection) they married—or rather consorted. Straightway he went to hardest work like the wildest fanatic. Building, building, &c—not too much tho' except that his foundation was—SAND! 20 months hardest work (and wretchedness.) 20 months supreme idling, "gadding", tales to "Ma!" To others—"he would be good to me if I would let him." Result—a deliberate, soldier-like suicide! He kept his troubles almost entirely concealed from his parents—we thoughts things were going just a little bad. The woman's people knew much more. Her four brothers of whom two were larger men, one as large, and one smaller, were a lot of jealous, stingy, envious fellows, who concealed their ill-will. (They had before maltreated a brother-in-law and a stepfather, and it doubtless mortified them for people to know they could'n't do the muscular and giant-willed young lion in the same way.) He was kind to them as if they were babies! They had to have their revenge (after his death) on his creditors and his innocent father. They made the widow repudiate all of his debts—tho' universally known that his improvements on her land were worth as much as the debts, and there was much added to her personal effects.
After long and patient reasoning the "old man" defied one of them to combat (with nature's weapon's)—he accepted—then weakened, "wilted", then took up a fence rail (having once killed a man with one at a single blow,) and made a most deliberate, long-continued attempt to kill. Well! he didn't kill, frighten or drive—and in all ways exhausted himself. Never was a sublimer scene.
Yet the most manifest, unblushing corruption (official and semi-official)2 and a total lack of manliness all around us seems about to excuse the offender
I am at our Circuit Court—been here some days. Since that young man was taking a law advantage of myself and other creditors of my dead son, after he went back on his agreement for a pugilistic encounter, I determined to only parry his many blows with steadfast demeanor 'till reflection [could?] stop him; but he stopped only from exhaustion, (as proven by his retreat within a gate in search of more effective weapons—and finding nothing but one something to throw at me, he left off, the picture of a miserable despair.) Yet with all his and his folks' subsequent wretchedness, they could not master their niggardliness to do anything for anybody except a few least needy creditors. These last got vague and indirect promises—doubtless to prevent or secure inffuence.
What a miracle or strange happening—that he should be drawn and passed as a grand juror at the court succeeding! Some other suggestive and ugly facts.
The cold-hearted young widow who had witnessed and consented to her handsome (and for her, every way noble) husband boring a hole through his own broad and generous breast with a double load of buckshot, also witnessed without any remonstrance the attempt to demolish the gray-haired father-in-law.
After brutal insults put on me in his brother's house, and in presence of two of his big and silent brothers (when I was still reasoning the matter,) and some months more of waiting, I went to his (bachelor) home, to challenge him. The corrupt and the unmanly make this their excuse, and say a petit jury would (as they fear) fail or refuse to execute the plain letter and spirit of the law.
My kin, always recognized as of superior honesty, have shown themselves in all this matter immeasurably sluggish and spiritless (as I wrote you some years ago that they were.)
Dear Walt, write to me at "Mid."
My kin are much allied with those bad people by marriages. Our broad estates are all adjoining.3
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.
1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey. It is postmarked: [illegible] | AUG | [illegible]; P O. | 8-30 85 | 9-1 A | [illegible]; NEW YORK | AUG 30 | [illegible]; CA [illegible]. [back]
2. The first part of this sentence has been crossed out. [back]
3. The final two sentences are written upside-down at the tops of pages 6 and 4 of the letter. [back]