Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 5 May 1878

Date: May 5, 1878

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02406

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: Kirsten Clawson, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Eder Jaramillo, Nicole Gray, Kenneth Price, and Elizabeth Lorang

page image
image 1
page image
image 2
page image
image 3
page image
image 4

Meltonsville Alabama
May 5 & 7 1878

To Walt Whitman

I don't [illegible] this letter.

I said a while back, that I should [illegible] writing to you again when I should be "[intolerably?] lonesome"—Well, I am now not lonesome, but somehow, I wish to write.

[Plagiarisms?]—how people sometimes use expressions (words or phrases) without a conscious copying after others who have used the same. Of course it can't be avoided that we shall use (with full originality) the same language often. Perhaps tho', what one has [said does?] form a lodgment in another's mind, and he forgets that he ever received it from an outside source. I am moved to say these things by remembering how I have sometimes in writing to you made use of just such phrases as are in your books—when I was not a bit conscious of copying. Notably, I wrote you a two-page letter (with scrap codicil) on August 14 1875, giving you the "theory of my life". Well, for certain, I did'nt remember you had ever used that phrase—if I had, my humor would probably have prompted me to ask you if [it?] would be necessary for my theory to [be abandoned?]"!

[Friends?]—John Burroughs (in Notes 2nd Edition) [ac?]tually admits that you W.W. had fault, [illegible] 20 years ago I began to say " [illegible] to be allowed a few faults"—[but to?] notice/thou) that I [claim?] that I have always been a [particular?] person (except some errors of judgment [and information?]) and laziness, laziness. Not [illegible] either about physical exertion—only [laze?] about learning or studying. However I now find myself getting so awful lazy about [illegible] proper farm work, that I am alarmed about the consequences.

It seems to me, great and good Mr. Whitman as tho' by your acceptance of me as a favored friend, that I have (the same as) received a Lieutenant's Commission from you—to be a decent, good, exemplary man. And now seeing how my laziness is growing on me so much, the question comes to me thus—will you let me resign my commission?

People [would?] tell you they are convinced beyond all doubt that I wish (and always have) to be just, merciful, truthful, plain, frugal, sober/entirely faithful to principles or methods by which we all can or could be comfortable and happy—but then can W.W. tolerate a slouch, a slouch? I [tender?] you my resignation of the Lieutenant [illegible]. I have always been weak, and [illegible] spare myself, use myself judiciously, but [illegible] I am gone.

This will [introduce?] something else. I know something of what has been said against Tom Paine— [illegible] blasphemous, drunken [illegible] prospect of after death".

Well, I [trust?] [illegible] work that must [enclose?] the "thing" [sought?] [illegible] met with a bold [confronting?]." If [he had?], if he did, what of it? Shall the true hero get permitted nothing of what seem to be [illegible]? shall only the cursed hypocrites and [illegible] be permitted to become incensed, to despair, to void everything but freedom or spontaneity?" I have been conjecturing that the two words "spontaneous me" are the greatest of all your writing. Is'nt the gist of all of your/and the [illegible]) philosophy and "religion" right there in those two words?

I go abroad (to "town") today, and am [pleased?] at thought of some recreation

I suppose the Radical Review is discontinued—I had thought of suggesting to its publisher the propriety of printing articles in such way that the numbers could be taken to pieces, and each important article [presented?] complete by itself—then I, you, or any one could hand to or pass around among friends or others any piece we would like without injuring other matter. Thus—let every important article [possess?] the whole of any leaf [illegible] any part of it appears.

I [have two?] copies of your poems of the 1871 Edition [and I?] some times wished to take [each?] volume to pieces and pass to acquaintance, that they might [illegible] themselves) that the [making?] imitations [illegible] papers) or even the [genuine?] short piece [illegible] to judge you or yours by. With a few explanations and [illegible] would progress best to have the [illegible] his hands "a little at a time". [illegible] obstacle was that the book (1871) was such a big book—so much to confront at once—some pieces I did not read through for a long time. (I believe I would make a splendid [commentator?] on you). If I were rich I would insist that you should let me publish you in small parts with a little of comment or explanation.

Do [you?] know this is human nature—to wish ( [illegible]) to communicate to others what either hurts us or makes us feel good?

A few (and among them two of my best cousins—J–n's) will never say "I have a head-ache—I have a toothache—I have a trouble—I have a pleasure—I have a book which so pleases me that I can never again be the same man in measured happiness or limited wisdom".

How long before I'll get your next book?

In Democratic Vistas you make too much of sick, wounded men not complaining. I accept howling, crying, cursing at distress the same as shouting for joy. What if a bled man does grin horribly a ghastly [illegible] if he still goes bravely ahead all the same?

I am nearly through planting [illegible] and generally things are nice. Please [illegible] time let me know if you get this—a [illegible] is one cent.

J. N. J—

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.


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.