Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 26 April 1875

Date: April 26, 1875

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01843

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 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.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Ashley Lawson, John Schwaninger, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Caterina Bernardini, Marie Ernster, Amanda J. Axley, and Stephanie Blalock

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Meltonsville, Alabama
April 26 1875

Walt [Whitman?]

It is sometimes very hard to determine [illegible] [one?] ought or ought not to do or say or [illegible] I feel it rather proper or necessary for me to [illegible] [write?] you a letter now and do the best I can. Along with the parcel of papers which you sent me after getting my baby's letter1 I got the picture and the double column bill previously sent me in the New Republic's regular issue (that is the matter of it) about Foreign Critics on an American Poet. The last paragraph speaks of "indigence", and I now write because of that. Let me guess why you gave authority to that statement—I think it [rather?] probable that you did so as a sort of [explanation?] of the reason or a hint of the fact that [illegible] not able to offer the [little?] Walt [illegible] present or keepsake as would be suited [illegible] dignity or exalted [worth?] the [part?] [illegible] that light I could be [illegible] of your [illegible] wish you were too poor to raise [illegible] pay postage even on your [paper?] If [you?] [illegible] [know?] me well, one of the [illegible] [illegible] would be a remarkable [illegible], or [illegible] [illegible]sing of riches, show, dress, or [illegible] not [described?] absolutely by good sense or [illegible] kindness.

Leaving off that supposition, [it?] [might?] be taken [that?] you wanted me to post the bill as a sort of advertisement of your books. (When I [was at?] "town" (Guntersville) two weeks ago, I sent money to Butts & Co.2 for a copy of Leaves of Grass to pass around among the folks there as a specimen—hoping, yet scarcely expecting to do much in behalf of increased sales of the same—

The third supposition must naturally be that my real good-will is now tested. I send a bill of money which is yours and you shall have a good deal more if you positively need it. I have [yet?] on hand two big bales of my cotton crop intended for spending money for the [illegible]—sold [the?] other of my crop (three more [big?] [illegible]) on one [illegible] credit to get interest. Friend! [illegible] neither [rich?] nor "dog poor"—I am [rich in?] content— [illegible] a good farm, and some [illegible] [of?] dollars [illegible] [hands?] of relatives and friends [illegible] they will [illegible] if I ever get to producing [illegible] to live on, [illegible]self, wife, and little ones [illegible] horse" farm [illegible] money to pay taxes and [illegible] our [illegible] our tenants make for us all [illegible] grain [illegible] we lack only a little of being self-supporting [illegible] and need draw but lightly on our [contingent?] fund, and when the crowd of athletic [gymnastic?] boys shall grow a little larger I hope to [clear?] up more land and "make things happen"—Now, I can see clearly (as I think) that friendship with or assistance to Walt Whitman, if he needs, is about the best bid that any common man can make for immortality for himself and pleasure to his posterity—if intellectual retrogression of mankind is ahead of us it will not be.

If the first supposition is correct, or the bill was [only?] accidentally put in the package of papers & [illegible] us do this way—clearly you are not [rich?] and I am not poor; to hurt—you [have?] [illegible] [sending?] me papers &c [requesting?] an [illegible] [stages?]—if you have means enough [illegible] or through kindness of immensely [illegible] [friends?] or relatives) to live as [well as?] you [illegible] if you are content to [illegible] [illegible] by a continuance of past [illegible] I would [illegible] to have you use the [money?] [illegible] books, magazines or papers such as you [illegible] like to read [most?] and afterwards send to me. I don't care for scientific works (except new works about mental or moral Philosophy)—I don't want political works, nor books of Poetry—I have not been such an enthusiast about Poetry as you might think, except that I have been almost insane about yours because you have so well expressed "my sentiments exactly" (However, you don't convert me to "immortality"—I have been through everything except revival religion or positive "knowledge of God") Walt! I think Nature made me for a "Philosopher" and (therefore skeptic", but circumstances have made me [illegible] and [illegible] long time a believer [in?] [illegible] of one sort or other. (Please don't [illegible] other [illegible]—hunter come down [illegible] my dilapidated dwelling [illegible])

John Newton Johnson [illegible]


[illegible] [for?] the past,3 a rude but strong expression [illegible] your works have [illegible] possible desire to say "bully boy" [illegible] [know?] that you heard me!! I think [illegible] myself hereafter by [illegible] Book always away from [home?] I think I would like to read [illegible] Life—have you seen it?— [illegible] about [illegible] health and continuance of [illegible]

John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) 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, 1874: 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 13, 1874, 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. See Johnson's letter to Whitman of April 3, 1875[back]

2. Asa K. Butts was a New York bookseller who went bankrupt in 1874. In the mid-1870s, Butts tried to help Whitman procure legal counsel during Whitman's difficulties with book agents who allegedly embezzled from him. [back]

3. Johnson wrote this postscript in the top margin, beginning on the second page of the letter, and concluding on the fourth page. [back]


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