Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 21 October 1890

Date: October 21, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02448

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

Contributors to digital file: Kirby Little, Ian Faith, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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54 Manchester Road
Lancashire, England.
Oct 21st 1890

Dear Walt Whitman,

I thank you for the Camden paper which you kindly sent me, containing the paragraphs anent the Ingersoll1 Lecture.2 By their refusal to let the Hall the Philadelphians3 have belittled themselves in the eyes of all good men and true, and their attempt to stifle free discussion shews that the spirit of intolerance and the narrow-minded ecclesiasticism which consigned Giordano Bruno4 to the stake still survives in your "City of Brotherly Love." I hope you had a good time & I shall look forward with pleasure to seeing a report of the meeting.

We had a grand meeting here on Oct 6th when I read to the friends5 J. W. W.'s6 "occasional out-of-door notes" upon yourself and your teaching, which were much appreciated by all. Some of the things that were said in the discussion or rather friendly talk, which followed prompted J. W. W. to write a "Rejoinder" which he requested me to read to the friends on Monday night last (Oct 20th) when we had another delightful symposium—some of the friends, Wentworth Dixon,7 Thos. Shorrock8 & myself contributing notes to the discussion and the others taking part in the interesting after talk

R. K. Greenhalgh9 has received the copy of the pocket book edition of L. of G10 which you kindly sent to him & is greatly pleased with it. On Sunday last he took it to the Parish Church Sunday School, where he is a teacher, & read extracts from it, including the "Prayer of Columbus,"11 to his scholars.

I had a very cordial letter from Dr. Bucke12 the other day in which he said that he would probably see you on the occasion of the Ingersoll Lecture. That I know will be a great pleasure to you & I have no doubt you will have a good time together.

By the way it so happens that Charles Bradlaugh13—the English Ingersoll—is lecturing tonight in Bolton Oct 21st—same date as yours—on "Doubt, the mother of Progress."

I don't think I have told you that in April last J. W. W. made me a present of a copy of the Thayer & Eldridge14 (1860) Edition of L. of G. with the portrait which brings out the Dutch elements in your features.

I enclose a cutting from The Family Herald15—a paper with a wide circulation—which may be of interest to you.16

I hope the grippe has quite left you & that you are now in better health.

J. W. W. has got back to work but still complains of a lack of nerve energy.

With best love to you & kindest regards to all your household, I remain,

Yours, affectionately,
J. Johnston

From The Family Herald London Oct 11th 189017



Geo. H. Dawson.18—When we spoke of Mr. Ruskin's19 critic, we did not argue the case between the two men. One is a practical painter who has undoubted genius, and he certainly knows what he is talking about. He thinks that Mr. Ruskin has mistaken notions about art; and we fear you will find that very many artists share that opinion. For our own part, we are pagan enough to say that we do not very much care even if any one tells us that Mr. Ruskin knows nothing about brushes and pigments. His prose is an abiding glory and delight; and, as to the question of his practical ability, we are very well content to let the artists fight it out among themselves. You are quite right—the critic is born, not made. By-the-way, you speak of Whitman's20 critical powers. Do you know that he is one of the most exquisitely delicate of literary critics? Some of his judgments on such men as Carlyle,21 Longfellow,22 Emerson,23 Scott,24 Whittier,25 Edgar Allan Poe,26 and even Homer27 and Shakspere,28 seem to us almost flawless. In your list of critics you do not mention Matthew Arnold.29 Had it not been for Arnold's most heartbreaking affectation, he would have been among the highest; but he spoiled himself by writing in a fashion which, although it was often felicitous, was more often insufferable. You mention Schlegel.30 Name of fear! We wish the Germans had never seen Shakspere, and we wish that a serious accident would irrevocably destroy all the works of all the commentators. When a man writes a learned essay to prove that Macbeth was the third murderer, we have got quite far enough.

Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, was a physician, photographer, and avid cyclist. Johnston was trained in Edinburgh and served as a hospital surgeon in West Bromwich for two years before moving to Bolton, England, in 1876. Johnston worked as a general practitioner in Bolton and as an instructor of ambulance classes for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. He served at Whalley Military Hospital during World War I and became Medical Superintendent of Townley's Hospital in 1917 (John Anson, "Bolton's Illustrious Doctor Johnston—a man of many talents," Bolton News [March 28, 2021]; Paul Salveson, Moorlands, Memories, and Reflections: A Centenary Celebration of Allen Clarke's Moorlands and Memories [Lancashire Loominary, 2020]). Johnston, along with the architect James W. Wallace, founded the "Bolton College" of English admirers of the poet. Johnston and Wallace corresponded with Whitman and with Horace Traubel and other members of the Whitman circle in the United States, and they separately visited the poet and published memoirs of their trips in John Johnston and James William Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). For more information on Johnston, see Larry D. Griffin, "Johnston, Dr. John (1852–1927)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Horace Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]

2. On October 21, 1890, at Horticultural Hall in Philadelphia, Robert Ingersoll delivered a lecture in honor of Walt Whitman titled Liberty in Literature. Testimonial to Walt Whitman. Whitman recorded in his Commonplace Book that the lecture was "a noble, (very eulogistic to WW & L of G) eloquent speech, well responded to by the audience," and the speech itself was published in New York by the Truth Seeker Company in 1890 (Whitman's Commonplace Book [Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]). [back]

3. The hostility in Philadelphia to the orator and agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll's (1833–1899) lecture in honor of Whitman aroused the wrath of the Whitmanites, although they secretly delighted in the opportunity to battle with the "enemy." The Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke, who had wanted a New York lecture, sputtered on September 28, "Now I am in favor of Phila for the sake of the dear Pharisees there. If I were down East and assisting to run the thing I would give them (at least try to give them) a dose that they would remember and that would do them good." He returned to the subject on September 30: "Chaff the Pharisees and tell them to 'come on!' Lord how dear old [William] O'C[onnor] would be tickled to be in the middle of the thing!" [back]

4. Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) was an Italian Dominican friar and philosopher, whose notions of a vast and infinite cosmos, as well as his pantheism and denial of doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the virginity of Mary, got him tried for heresy beginning in 1593 and burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. [back]

5. Johnston is referring to the "Bolton College," a group of English admirers of Whitman, that he and Wallace co-founded. [back]

6. James William Wallace (1853–1926) visited Whitman in Camden in October 1891. An English architect, Wallace was an admirer of Whitman's writing. With his friend Dr. John Johnston, Wallace had helped to establish a club of Whitman enthusiasts in England called the Bolton "College." For more information, see Larry D. Griffin, "Wallace, James William (1853–1926)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Wentworth Dixon (1855–1928) was a lawyer's clerk and a member of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship. [back]

8. Thomas Shorrock was a clerk in the Bolton police court. [back]

9. Richard Greenhalgh, a bank clerk and one of Whitman's Bolton admirers, frequently hosted annual celebrations of the poet's birthday. In his March 9, 1892, letter to Traubel, Greenhalgh wrote that "Walt has taught me 'the glory of my daily life and trade.' In all the departments of my life Walt entered with his loving personality & I am never alone" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, March 20, 1892). James Wallace described Greenhalgh as "undoubtedly a rich, royal, plain fellow, not given to ornate word or act" (Sunday, September 27, 1891). For more on Greenhalgh, see Paul Salveson, "Loving Comrades: Lancashire's Links to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 14.2 (1996), 57–84. [back]

10. Whitman had a special pocket-book edition printed in honor of his 70th birthday, May 31, 1889, through special arrangement with Frederick Oldach. Only 300 copies were printed, and Whitman signed the title page of each one. The volume also included the annex Sands at Seventy and his essay A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads. See Whitman's May 16, 1889, letter to Oldach. For more information on the book see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]

11. Johnston is referring to Whitman's poem "Prayer of Columbus." [back]

12. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

13. Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891) was a member of Parliament and a political activist. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866 and is remembered for his work to make artificial contraception available to all classes. [back]

14. Thayer and Eldridge was a Boston publishing firm responsible for the third edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1860). For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge see "Thayer, William Wilde [1829–1896] and Charles W. Eldridge [1837–1903]." [back]

15. The Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information & Amusement (1843–1940) was a British weekly story paper begun by George Biggs, who served as the proprietor, and then re-launched with James Elishama Smith. When Biggs died in 1859, the paper continued with a new proprietor, William Stevens. [back]

16. Johnston included the "To Correspondents" section from the October 11, 1890, issue of The Family Herald as an enclosure. [back]

17. Johnston recorded this bibliographical information for the article in black ink on the left side of the clipping. [back]

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

19. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was one of the leading art critics in Victorian Great Britain. Whitman sent Leaves of Grass and a "couple of photographs" to Ruskin via William Harrison Riley in March 1879 (see the letter from Whitman to Riley of March 18, 1879). Ruskin, according to Whitman, expressed "worry...[that] Leaves of Grass is...too personal, too emotional, launched from the fires of...spinal passions, joys, yearnings" (see the letter from Whitman to William O'Connor of October 7, 1882). Whitman, late in life, said to Horace Traubel: "[I] take my Ruskin with some qualifications." Still, Ruskin "is not to be made little of: is of unquestionable genius and nobility" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, January 24, 1889, 17). [back]

20. Johnston underlined the word "Whitman's" in the newspaper clipping in black ink. [back]

21. Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) was a Scottish essayist, historian, lecturer, and philosopher. For more on Carlyle, see John D. Rosenberg, Carlyle and the Burden of History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985). [back]

22. In his time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was both a highly popular and highly respected American poet. His The Song of Hiawatha, published the same year as Leaves of Grass, enjoyed sales never reached by Whitman's poetry. When Whitman met Longfellow in June 1876, he was unimpressed: "His manners were stately, conventional—all right but all careful . . . he did not branch out or attract" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, May 10, 1888, 130). [back]

23. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was an American poet and essayist who began the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature. For more on Emerson, see Jerome Loving, "Emerson, Ralph Waldo [1809–1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

24. Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) was a Scottish statesman, historical novelist, playwright, and poet, best known for Ivanhoe (1820), The Lady of the Lake (1810), and Waverly (1814). For Whitman's view of Scott, see Vickie L. Taft, "Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

25. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) earned fame as a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery. As a poet, he employed traditional forms and meters, and, not surprisingly, he was not an admirer of Whitman's unconventional prosody. For Whitman's view of Whittier, see the poet's numerous comments throughout the nine volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden (various publishers: 1906–1996) and Whitman's "My Tribute to Four Poets," in Specimen Days (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882–'83), 180–181. [back]

26. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) was an American poet, fiction writer, and literary critic. Though born in Boston, he was shaped by an upbringing in the South. He is best known for his short tales, including detective fiction and stories of the macabre. Poe passed away a few days after he was found delirious and in need of medical assistance on the streets of Baltimore. [back]

27. Homer is the Ancient Greek poet and author of the epic poems The Odyssey and The Illiad[back]

28. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was an English poet and playwright and is widely considered the world's greatest dramatist. He was the author of numerous plays, sonnets, and narrative poems. [back]

29. The English poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) first came to America on a lecture tour in October, 1883, and remained until March, 1884. He "returned to England confirmed by experience in his conception of the average American as a hard uninteresting type of Philistine." After a second trip to the United States in the summer of 1886, Arnold commented on American life being "uninteresting, so without savour and without depth" (Stuart P. Sherman, Matthew Arnold [Indianapolis, 1917], 46–49). [back]

30. August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) was a German poet, translator, and critic. He is considered to be one of the founders of the German Romantic Movement, and his translations of sixteen Shakespeare plays are credited with turning the works into German classics. [back]


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