Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 17 July 1876

Date: July 17, 1876

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01851

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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "John Newton Johnson July 17 '76," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Kevin McMullen, Ashley Lawson, John Schwaninger, Caterina Bernardini, Amanda J. Axley, Erel Michaelis, and Stephanie Blalock

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Meltonsville, Alabama,
July [17?] 1876.

Walt Whitman—

Dear patient and [illegible] [ye?]t [afflicted?] Friend—[your?] Card of 13 instant1 in reply to m[y] letter of the 5 is at hand—The main [purpose] of this is to express the [greatest?] sympathy with you in your sickness—and, understand that it was not merely or mainly the "Radicalism" of your works which drew me toward [you?] it was the [warmth?] of a loving heart and universal charity so beautifully expressed—that which leans towards my own preference for "[rudeness?]—[savageness—[spiritedness?] "was still regarded?] [illegible] in comparison. (Please let me replace some of the stamps you [have?] wasted on me.)

The world should thank you for your Love—without regard to opinions.

[The?] questions I have lately [sent?] [you?] [about?] policy of attacking suc[h?] Orthodoxy as [prevails?] here and elsewhere, were forced from me by an increasing conviction that such Preaching as we have is grea[tly res?]ponsible [illegible] for the low moral condition of the country. I agree with Democratic Vistas,2 that we should get back to uncontaminated "intuitions" of tr[ue gr]race as the sound b[asi?]s for moral improvement.

Quite lately I came to perceive how you accepted the universe as a loving wife accepts gifts of a provident husband. I am satisfied—I see, laugh, dance, sing.

Afte[r?] [I?] write again, say you got this, (I [m?]ay sometime shortly send a little note to John Burroughs,3 to ask if he got the pretty little printed articles of a Georgia Poet4 about [Fruit?]-Growing which I sent him in my one (only) short note a year ag[o?] [illegible] There was some very amusing and pretty a [illegible] lines of Dr Ticknor.) ☛ I shall be greatly offended unless you strictly limit yourself to love for B.

Dear Friend—think not that I know noth[ing?] about trouble or spells of unhappiness we are a discordant household, and I will (of course) say it is not my fault, but [w?]ould boast of patience and ingenuity. [De?]feated till I sometimes wish I were dead.)

More and more I realize that the world is not rightly taught—I [partly?] despair [an?]d partly resent. Yet I enjoy life most of the time, and owe more to you than any[one] [else?]. We have so much dry weather, [the?] crop gives much leisure, but I fear we may have a [seri?]ous drouth

John Newton Johnson

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 postal card has not been located. [back]

2. Whitman's Democratic Vistas was first published in 1871 in New York by J.S. Redfield. The volume was an eighty-four-page pamphlet based on three essays, "Democracy," "Personalism," and "Orbic Literature," all of which Whitman intended to publish in the Galaxy magazine. Only "Democracy" and "Personalism" appeared in the magazine. For more information on Democratic Vistas, see Arthur Wrobel, "Democratic Vistas [1871]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [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. Dr. Francis Orrey Ticknor (1822–1874) was born in Georgia and studied medicine in New York and Philadelphia. He then returned to Columbus, Georgia, where he and his family lived on a farm. Ticknor was a poet and a successful horticulturist, as well as a musician and draftsman. A collection of his poems was published in 1879 (Southern Writers: Selections in Prose and Verse, ed. W. P. Trent, [London: Macmillan & Co., 1914], 343). [back]


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