Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: May F. Johnston to Walt Whitman, 29 October 1891

Date: October 29, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02373

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.

Notes for this letter were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), and supplemented, updated, or created by Whitman Archive staff as appropriate.

Related item: Whitman opened the envelope in which this letter arrived and used the blank inside of it to write drafts of lines that became part of the poem "A Thought of Columbus."

Contributors to digital file: Cristin Noonan, Amanda J. Axley, and Stephanie Blalock

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All Communications should be addressed to the firm.
New York, Oct. 29th 1891

Dear Uncle Walt:

Yesterday Major Pond2 brought Sir Edwin Arnold3 in to meet Father,4 but as Father is still quite ill5 and confined to the house, I represented him and had the pleasure of a delightful little chat with Mr. Arnold. Almost his first word was an inquiry for you and he asked me to send you his love and hearty greetings and say that he hopes to be able to see you while in America, but as his engagements are so numerous he cannot positively promise himself the pleasure. I wish I might myself give you the special hand grasp which he gave me for you, but I can only send you my best love with the hope that these bright days find you quite well.

Affectionately yours
May F. Johnston

Mary Frances (May) Johnston (1862–1957) was the daughter of John H. Johnston (1837–1919) and his first wife Amelia Johnston. She was the younger sister of Bertha Johnston (1872–1953), who was involved in the suffrage movement. May later married Arthur Levi, of London, England ("Mrs. A. C. Johnston, Author, Dies at 72," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle [May 3, 1917], 3).


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey. It is postmarked: NEW YORK | OCT29 | 5 PM | D; CAMDEN, N.J. | OCT30 | 6 AM | 91 | REC'D. [back]

2. James Burton Pond (1838–1903) was a famous lecture-manager and printer. He was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his services in the Civil War. In his 1900 autobiography Eccentricities of Genius (G. W. Dillingham Co: New York), he writes of Whitman: "Whitman gave a few readings under my management during his life. They were mostly testimonials from friends, and benefits given in the theatres of New York City"; Pond concludes with an anecdote about the poet's meeting with Sir Edwin Arnold (497–501). [back]

3. Sir Edwin Arnold (1832–1904) was a British poet and journalist best known for his long narrative poem, The Light of Asia (1879), which tells the life story and philosophy of Gautama Buddha and was largely responsible for introducing Buddhism to Western audiences. Arnold visited Whitman in Camden in 1889. For an account of Arnold's visit, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, September 13, 1889 and Saturday, September 14, 1889: "My main objection to him, if objection at all, would be, that he is too eulogistic—too flattering," Whitman concluded. Arnold published his own version of the interview in Seas and Lands (1891), in which he averred that the two read from Leaves of Grass, surrounded by Mrs. Davis, knitting, a handsome young man (Ned Wilkins), and "a big setter." There are at least two additional accounts of Arnold's visit with Whitman; "Arnold and Whitman" was published anonymously in The Times (Philadelphia, PA) on September 15, 1889, and a different article, also titled "Arnold and Whitman" was published anonymously in The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA) on September 26, 1889.  [back]

4. John H. Johnston (1837–1919) was a New York jeweler and close friend of Whitman. Johnston was also a friend of Joaquin Miller (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, August 14, 1888). Whitman visited the Johnstons for the first time early in 1877. In 1888 he observed to Horace Traubel: "I count [Johnston] as in our inner circle, among the chosen few" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, October 3, 1888). See also Johnston's letter about Whitman, printed in Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915), 149–174. For more on Johnston, see Susan L. Roberson, "Johnston, John H. (1837–1919) and Alma Calder," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. May's father, the New York jeweler John H. Johnston, had recently written a letter to Whitman in which Johnston stated: "Alma and I are both just recovering from a hard cold, otherwise, all well." See Johnston's letter of October 13, 1891. [back]


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