Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Alma Calder Johnston to Walt Whitman, 19 May 1889

Date: May 19, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02430

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 notes: The annotation, "f'm my friend Mrs: Johnston | NY," is in the hand of Walt Whitman. The annotation, "see notes | June 6 | 1889," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Caterina Bernardini, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock

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305 17th Street East1

Our dear Uncle Walt.

If all the talks of you which are heard in our family were telephoned to your ear, you would have daily communications from the house of Johnston.

"Uncle Walt would enjoy this;" "I wish Uncle Walt could hear that;" "If Uncle Walt were only here," are frequent exclamations. Indeed you have had, since the sad event of thirteen years ago,2 (does it seem so long?) a central place in the heart of the home and it was there I met and welcomed you.

Now another change is about to take place: (and who knows whether life or death is more momentous?) The marriage of Grace.3

You know how lovely she is in voice and feature: but you cannot know how every best quality of her parents is mingled into a perfect whole. To me, her second mother, (by law, her first in devotion) she has always been a daughter indeed! Nothing could surpass the filial love she has given me: the confidence in my judgment: the loving obedience to every requirement. The aid, the encoureagement, the companionship she has given me since reaching the level of womanhood.

It is not easy for me to give this to a man: nor easy for her to turn her face away from the sweet care-free maidenhood: leave the dear sheltered home—next the companionship of sisters: and take all at once wife-hood mother-hood,—the burden of a wealth-sustaining matron!

For you have doubtless heard that the man she is to marry has both children and money: (burdens or blessings as we make them.) Fortunately—though without these qualities he would not have gained his4

Alma Calder Johnston (1843–1917) was an author and the founder of a charity called the Little Mothers' Aid Society. The charity funded trips to Pelham Bay Park on Hunter's Island for young girls who served as the primary caregivers for their siblings while their parents worked. Johnston wrote for the New York Tribune and Harper's Weekly ("[Obituary for Alma Calder Johnston]," in "New York Notes," The Jewelers' Circular-Weekly [May 9, 1917], 85). Her "Personal Memories of Walt Whitman" was published in The Bookman 46 (December 1917), 404–413. She was the second wife of the jeweler John H. Johnston, and her family owned a home and property in Equinunk, Pennsylvania. For more on the Johnstons, 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).


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden, N.J. It is postmarked: New York | May 19 | 12 PM | D; Camden, N.J. | May | 20 | 10 AM | 1889 | Rec'd; N.Y. | 5 [illegible]-20-89 | 2 30 [illegible]M | [illegible]. [back]

2. Alma is referring here to Whitman's first extended visit to the Johnston home in February 1877, when J.H. Johnstons's first wife, Amelia, suddenly took ill and died. [back]

3. Grace McAlpine Johnston (1866–1935), born in Mount Vernon, New York, was the daughter of Walt Whitman's friend John Henry Johnston (1837–1919), a jeweler, and Johnston's first wife, Amelia F. Many (1839–1877). From 1927 to 1931, she served as the President of the oldest women's club in the United States: the Sorosis Club. She was married first to William J. Johnston (1853–1907), a publisher of telegraphic literature and founder of Electrical World; the couple had at least three children. She later married William McCarroll (1851–1933), a Public Service Commissioner ("Mrs. Wm McCarroll, Ex-Sorosis Head, Dies," New York Times [March 11, 1935], 17). For genealogical information on the ancestors and descendants of Grace's father, John H. Johnston, see "John H. Johnston," Families of Dickerman Ancestry: Descendants of Thomas Dickerman an Early Settler of Dorchester, Massachusetts (New Haven, CT: The Tuttle, Morehouse, & Taylor Press, 1897), 267–268. [back]

4. The remaining page or pages of this letter are missing and may not be extant. [back]


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