Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 2 February 1886
Date: February 2, 1886
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.02408
Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, Kyle Barton, and Nicole Gray
It was a great shock to J. N. Johnson to have several men tell me when I last went to town that they were more or less sure they had seen in some newspaper notices of the death of Walt Whitman. I did not think, tho', I should have failed to see it in those I had been reading. It is (as it has been) the immeasurable thoughtfulness of us two men that should make it the saddest of happenings if we two are never to meet. Obstacles, obstacles tho', are always getting in the way. It seems to me if I could see you shortly by going to your brother's at St Louis, Mo., I would like to go there. I could serve an important business end by a little travel I think—in some direction.
Our P.O. has no envelopes.1
Feb 2 1886
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 postal card is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey. It is postmarked: [illegible] | FEB | 6 | 7 AM | 1886 | REC'D. [back]