Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 29 November 1890

Date: November 29, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02450

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, "see notes 12-14-90," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

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



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54. Manchester Road,
Bolton.
Lancashire, England.1
Novr 29th 1890.

Dear Walt Whitman,

Thanks to you for your kind p.c. of the 18th inst. 2 just received this morning, from which I am sorry to learn that you were still troubled with the grippe etc.

The reading of your p.c. inspired me with a great longing desire to go to you & to do something to help you in your trouble.

How I envy H. T.3 his great privilege & wish that I could be with you as he is! But I am heartily glad to know that he is with you daily & I have no doubt that his presence is a great comfort to you.

By this time you will, I trust, be in possession of my printed notes and of the numbers of Great Thoughts4 containing Edmund Mercer's5 article upon yourself.

I have discovered that he is a young solicitor residing in Manchester which is 11 miles from Bolton. I have been favoured with two letters from him in one of which he says:—

"Since I first read any of Whitman's poems—5 years ago—I have always more or less admired him & a profounder knowledge serves to increase that admiration . . . . . I feel to him just now as though he were my grandfather or an aged uncle; as though I once knew him but my remembrances were like an infant's."

He further says that he has long cherished a desire to write to you and had at last—thanks to my sending Great Thoughts to you—"screwed his courage to the sticking place" to do so.6

He seems to be a genuinely good fellow & has a deep regard for you.

Thank you also for your kindness in promising to send me a copy of the Ingersoll7 Lecture.8 Might I ask you to send one also to J. W. Wallace9 & I will remit the cash on receipt?

We had our first fall of snow here today, & very beautiful did the outside world look, all robed in its white mantle of purity, glorified into dazzling splendour by the radiant beams of the great "silent sun."

A similar occasion last year on my birthday Dec. 8th suggested the enclosed "Snow Thought"

It is now a lovely moonlight night & I have just returned from a most enjoyable walk—a professional call—& the tramp along the snow-caked glistening road & through the keen, frosty air has exhilirated me & sent the warm blood tingling to my finger tips.

Novr 29th 1890 I have today heard from JWW—to whom I conveyed your loving salutation—that along with his copy of the Conservator10 is another marked copy which he presumes that you have sent for me. Thank you for it!

Our Librarian11 informs me that there is a poem of yours in one of this month's magazines—probably Scribner's12—but I have not seen it yet

With kindest regards to all the members of your household & with best love to yourself
I remain
yours affectionately
J. Johnston

A Snow Thought

Scenes that are wondrous fair
This morn are everywhere:
For snow has fallen in the night
And robed the slumb'ring world in white.

On street and roof it lies,
An Essence from the skies—
Pure as the angels' feathery down,
Transfiguring the dingy town.

It seems as if, in love,
Our Father, from above
His mantle of Forgiveness vast
Upon a guilty world had cast.

Alas! that men elect
His mercy to reject!
And trample it beneath their feet
As snow is trodden in the street.


J. Johnston

Bolton
Dec. 8th 1889


Correspondent:
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 One 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 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).

Notes:

1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle St | Camden | New Jersey | U. S. America. It is postmarked: Bolton | [illegible] | NO29 | 90; Bolton | [illegible] | NO29 | 90; 92, New Y[ORK] | DEC | 13; PAID | H | ALL: Camden, N.J. | Dec | 1 [illegible] | 5 PM | 1890 | Rec'd. Johnston has written his initials "JJ" in the bottom left of the recto of the envelope. [back]

2. See Whitman's postcard to Johnston of November 18, 1890. [back]

3. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the mid-1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919],"Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Johnston is referring to the annual periodical Great Thoughts from Master Minds (1884–1937), which was published in London and edited by Robert Colville. The publication included prose, poetry, and illustrations. [back]

5. Edmund Mercer (1865–1945) was from Manchester, England, one of five children born to Thomas Mercer (1836–1893)—a silk manufacturer—and Alice Holden (1837–1921). In 1899, he married Helena Harriet Tippins (1872–1939) and the couple had two children, Geoffrey Edmund (1901–1981) and Robert Osborn (1909–1995). English census data record Mercer as a solicitor living in Manchester. His sonnet "Blue and Gold" appeared in the August 24, 1889, issue of Chambers's Journal (544); he also regularly contributed essays to the Manchester Quarterly, published by the Manchester Literary Club, of which he was at one time a Council Member. When Mercer died in 1945, he was working for the firm of Maurice Rubin and Company, and his obituary in volume eleven of The Law Times claims that he as "reputed to be the oldest practicing solicitor in Manchester" (202). [back]

6. Mercer wrote to Whitman on November 28, 1890[back]

7. 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 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" (Horace 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]

8. 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]

9. James William Wallace (1853–1926), of Bolton, England, was an architect and great admirer of Whitman. Along with John Johnston (1852–1927), a physician from Bolton, he 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 Wallace, 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]

10. Horace Traubel founded The Conservator in March 1890, and he remained its editor and publisher until his death in 1919. Traubel conceived of The Conservator as a liberal periodical influenced by Whitman's poetic and political ethos. A fair portion of its contents were devoted to Whitman appreciation and the conservation of the poet's literary and personal reputation. [back]

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

12. Scribner's Monthly was an illustrated literary magazine published monthly from 1870 until 1881 by Scribner & Company. Later, in 1881, after Charles Scribner (1854–1930) sold his share of the company, the magazine was relaunched as The Century Magazine[back]


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