Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 10 May 1875

Date: May 10, 1875

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01844

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, Eder Jaramillo, John Schwaninger, Caterina Bernardini, Marie Ernster, Amanda J. Axley, and Stephanie Blalock

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[Meltonsville?] Alabama
May 10 1875.

Walt [Whitman Dear?] Friend—

Yours dated1 [illegible] came to hand [illegible] afternoon—contents safe.

What you [illegible] a variety of thoughts... ——————————
I have long [thought?] enthusibility an indispensible foundation [illegible] heroic life. ——————————
Besides numerous other "good" [people?] as almost everybody else would call them, I have in my mind the instance of my first wife—a girl whom I became acquainted with at a school I attended in my 15th year, and married when I was just 18 yrs & 2 days old—(mind you! I had no father, mother, sister, and but one rude, repellent brother and his wife2 a good match for him.) Now, that girl of mine for 10 years was the purest, gentlest, and generally the most cheerfully amiable person that could be imagined—I "fairly" worshipped her from [beginning?] to end, and was perhaps as happy in [marriage?] with her as a man could possibly be [illegible] Yet she had that [fault?]—I don't [illegible] got or could get the thought of [illegible] into her head—she appeared [illegible] all pervious to the [entrance?] of enthu[siasm?] [illegible] [in?]deed my life with her was somewhat painful, as [illegible] be sure that with my extreme [conscientiousness?] or fastidiousness in the business of [illegible] could keep her really contented with[out?] [illegible]ing my principles. When it became necessary in order to retain my home that [illegible] reconstruct my family, I preferred to be content with less of amiability if I could secure more strength or vitality. I thought it would be too great a task to hunt the world over for a perfect match. The present Mrs "Philosopher"3 is not destitute of various desirable qualities—she is very "shrewd," and too nice a housekeeper—Yet she is another one of the sort not enthusible. Perhaps you have noticed that I could have sent you some considerable "heart-offering" without trying to be able to justify myself by knowing you to be in absolute want [illegible] Mrs. Philosopher can't rule me, and [illegible] rule her! If you should wish to know [illegible] than from myself whether I am a [illegible] [oic ?] "good enough" man, please [illegible] that there [are?] means by which you [illegible] [ascertain?] who [illegible] the oldest resident [illegible] prominent merchants, lawyers [illegible] this country.

Modesty and [illegible] [blush?] at the thought of the answers [illegible] [yet?] for leading questions about [honesty?] [illegible]fulness, self sacrifice of pecuniary [illegible] on one hand or devotion to ideas of [righteous opposition?] to a world on the other—also [consider?] of father, uncle and cousins. (Probably you would not give a "fig" for more evidence.)

I find myself nothing like so happy a man as I was before the war—yet my property losses never troubled me "one bit", and few of my near relatives lost their lives or otherwise badly "hurt". I have come to have a poorer digestion, and have met up with so many petty ["crosses"?] from the insignificance of the moral strength of "people" as experience enlarges [illegible]—that I suppose to be the chief cause [illegible] depression. I find however a sort [illegible] [myself?] in a change of belief about the [illegible] question—when I thought [illegible] were a direct work of a "Creator" [illegible] help being angry with Him [illegible] making of mean souls. Also when I could have a [illegible] belief [in?] Free Will I [illegible] more than [illegible] think I shall be [here?] [illegible] [when?] looking upon souls as material [Free?] Will as the product of "Antecedents".

(Please let us not waste time or [life?] by arguing upon any points of difference in our opinions on any subject—I dont ask any long letters from you—only a card sometimes to tell of your health and happiness—There is not much political difference—with a white-hot temper or heart I unite a wonderfully thoughtful, cool, methodical character and habit of mind—I am no bigot (couldn't possibly be so)—would prove a great listener for you if I could be with you ☛ [illegible] "baby" has ordered you to talk and [illegible] tongue-tied. Crop work progressing [well friend!?] bear up bravely—you [illegible] cause and must to the end [illegible] [magnificent?] FAME. in the future [illegible] [people?] in my country know what heroism means.

[J. N. Johnson?]

P.S. I am a [illegible] the ground is too wet to plow—after one day's work I see a [illegible] ahead—I believe I will "kill" the mill and [illegible] with one stone" to-day—Monday May 104

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. This letter has not been located. [back]

2. Johnson is referring to his older brother Bartley C. Johnson (1830–1862), also a farmer in Marshall County, Alabama. According to county marriage records, Bartley married Elizabeth L. Ditto (1832–1910) in 1849. [back]

3. Sarah Evergreen Parker Johnson (1846–1907), Johnson's second wife. [back]

4. The postscript for this letter is written on the top of the front side of the second page of this letter. [back]


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