Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, [19 February] 1875

Date: [February 19], 1875

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01849

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, Eder Jaramillo, John Schwaninger, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Caterina Bernardini, Jonathan Y. Cheng, Nicole Gray, Amanda J. Axley, Marie Ernster, and Stephanie Blalock

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Meltonsville, Al[abama]
[illegible] 1875.

Mr. Whitman—

Your [illegible] was received a few days ago.1 I had [illegible]mined [that if?] writing for a while [illegible] corres[pondent?] except my son in T[exas]2 [illegible] I would [wait?] a good long spell, I wo [illegible] to learn how much of purely [spontaneous?] [illegible] you do [feast?] in the (of choice) humble [illegible] strange farmer living down here in [illegible] also was curious to see if you would [spontaneously?] be sending me and little Walt the new volume which you are to bring out this summer. But getting with yours the picture of [illegible] Burroughs,3 I suppose it will be perhaps well enough to write now. ☞ I have no faith in Ph [illegible] Physiognomy as a practical thing if in any way, but the [illegible] the book seem [fully?] indicative of talent [illegible] tho' perhaps [illegible] strongly expresses im [illegible] than an [illegible] greater share of the [illegible]ood [illegible]ing which I glory in [illegible] trust in [illegible]. Perhaps tho' he is on [illegible]ny way. [illegible] sometimes doubted this [illegible] some[thing?] well, he is too scrupulous [illegible]sible", [the?] other times "well, he is to [illegible] very honest."—However, if [illegible] now, or about to [be a fruit farmer?] "on the banks of one of the [noblest and most?] fruitful rivers" (poetical but irrelevant [illegible]—namesake of our oldest [illegible] [May of?] [illegible] son) there is a bond. If ["similitude?] [illegible] me and J.B.—I had the honor to be [illegible] in introducing fine Apples and Pears to, [illegible] out in backwoods county. [Thomas?] Bartlett; [illegible] Belle Lucrative, and L.B. [De] [illegible] Jersey &c [illegible] were unknown 'till Willwell came to the front. Ah! Those fine fruits were the only luxury I could have for some years after the end of the war.4 They and "Leaves of Grass" have stood alone in making me Jubilant. My interest, profit and pleasure have been much [distracted?] by fruit-rotting so generally of [illegible] years. But memory's pleasures can [illegible] some degree.


But getting [illegible] you and me, dear comforter [illegible] Burroughs hints at your meaning to [illegible]low, wherever you [may?] go, and [illegible] to meetings with friends [illegible] or letters [illegible] or sights of "shows" [illegible] [(Centennial?] editions,5 or what not) or please of any sort or source—to [illegible] that you still [live?] and can yet love to [find?] [illegible] most that I [illegible] care for between [us. But?] know this that while I earnestly and [strongly desire?] you should take no interest in [illegible] mine that [would?] cause you one bit of [sorrow?] or anxiety if bad luck should befall us in any way— [illegible] still, myself, children [illegible] my not enthusible and mostly [illegible] wife are delighted,6 flattered, and feel ourselves highly distinguished any time we get anything of any sort from Uncle Walt or big Walt Whitman as the children say.

(My & Wife's dreadful "tempers" may wreck us any time—so care not much for us.

We are doing finely in all our farming operations. Health tolerably good. Little Walt7 came to us after [an interregnum?] of about twice the usual time [illegible] [that?] may have helped some, but mostly [illegible] lingered over so long and [illegible]n [this?] caused us all to regard [illegible] [with?] threefold pride and tenderness [illegible] of what papa had to get over—the [illegible]ving and a "back-heart [bobolitionist?]—

If I shall [not?] write much again for a good long time, please excuse me, and [illegible] on the other hand (looking at the [illegible] [I shall?] be so foolish as to write too much (which I hope I shall not) then excuse that, and your cha [illegible]ll shine conspicuous.


Since writing the above, I first notice the red chalk mark alongside the lines where Burroughs invites "George"8 (who is "George?") to come there and look at a farm that is for sale. Knowing how some of your Northern people wish to run from your [illegible] winters, I will say is "George" [illegible] of a Southern as [illegible] as a North [illegible] [more?]? I would not recommend my section [illegible] for a Northern man to [make?] a fortune except in raising clover or other [hay?]. But a Whitman would find many friends and fine m [illegible] [here?] [illegible] nothing very or extra healthy [illegible] or striking in scenery.

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 likely referring to his son Allen Johnson. According to the 1880 U. S. Census, five years after the date of this letter, Allen was living in Dallas, Texas, and operating a fruit stand. [back]

3. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Johnson was a Confederate soldier in the U. S. Civil War. He enlisted in Alabama in 1862 as a Private in Company H of the 4th Militia Infantry. [back]

5. During the centennial celebration of the U.S. in 1876, Whitman reissued the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass in the repackaged form of a "Centennial Edition" and "Author's Edition," with most copies personally signed by the poet. Two Rivulets was published as a companion volume to the book. Notable for its experimentations in form, typography, and printing convention, Whitman's two-volume set marks an important departure from previous publications of Leaves of Grass. For more information, see Frances E. Keuling-Stout, " Leaves of Grass, 1876, Author's Edition," "Two Rivulets, Author's Edition [1876]," and "Preface to Two Rivulets [1876]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) and his first wife, Clotilda Loveless Johnson (b. 1832), were the parents of three children. By 1875, Johnson had married Sarah E. Johnson (1844–1907). John Newton Johnson was the father of fourteen children. [back]

7. Walter Whitman Johnson (1874–1935) was the son of John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) and Sarah E. Johnson (1844–1907). [back]

8. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]


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