Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 20 December 1890

Date: December 20, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02454

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: Kirby Little, Ryan Furlong, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock



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54, Manchester Road,
Bolton
Lanc: England.
Dec 20th 90

Dear Walt Whitman

By this mail I am sending you the Christmas number of the Review of Reviews in which, at pages 581 & 592 you will find your beautiful poem "To the Sunset breeze"1 & your article "Old Poets"2 quoted—the no. is an unusually varied & interesting one.

I have forwarded copies of my "Notes"3 with short letters to all the friends whose names you gave me This morning I recd a letter of acknowledgement from R Pearsall Smith4 (London) in which he speaks of you as "the statuesque old man" & as "one of the landmarks of literary history."

Since receiving your [last?] letter I have been much troubled about you & am very anxious to learn how you are keeping. Better I hope. I sent a brief p.c. to Warry5 which I hope he will reply to immediately; & if it wd not be troubling him too much, I shd be greatly obliged if he wd kindly drop me a line or two if only on a p.c., say once a week, while your illness continues.

When I think of you, my dear old friend, prostrated by bodily illness, suffering physical pain &, for the most part, alone my heart yearns to ward you & I long to be able to do something to help you. But alas! I can do nothing but write & assure you of my tender sympathy & of my heartfelt & daily deepening affection for you. God ble[ss] & [Ke]ep you now & always a[nd] give you immunity from pain! is the constant prayer of one who owe more to you than to any other man living or dead & who will ever hold you in the highest reverence & love.

This has been a disagreeable day here— the ground is thicker covered with snow, the wind is Easterly & cutting, there is a keen frost & the whole town & neighbourhood are enveloped in a thick fog. This morning I had [illegible] hours driving in my open conveyance I cd not take my brougham—& the all-prevalent moisture condensed on my beard & moustache & froze into tiny icicles which had to be thawed off. It was about as unpleasant an experience as I ever remember but now that I have seen the last of the patients in the surgery & had a bit of dinner I am feeling warm & comfortable again & am writing this letter to you on my literary machine6 (the boys' prese[nt)] before a nice warm fire in an open fireplace & with my dear wife reading beside me.

I recd a letter from Mr Wallace7 in which he tells me that he has today written a letter to you & that he has previously sent you copies of the songs W. Dixon8 wrote for my birthday party.

And now I must bring this badly written letter to a close by wishing you the compliments of the festive seasons & a speedy return to health or [some?] measure of health as may be expected at your time of life & under your circumstances.

With my kindest regards to all the members of your household & with my best heart's-love to you

I remain
Yours affectionately
J Johnston

P.S. JWW's birthday gift to me was a beautifully got up book—"Familiar Wild birds." The presentation was made by J. W. Wallace in a graceful and appropriate speech in which he spoke of some of the qualities of mind and heart which have endeared Mr Hutton9 to us all and which he (J.W.W.) has referred to in one of his letters to you. He spoke of him as a man who instead of shirking the "spectres of the mind" as so many clergymen do has boldly faced & slain them & has emerged from the conflict strengthened & with a purer & loftier faith.10 He is an altogether splendid fellow & although he belongs to a class with whom we have not much sympathy we can talk to him quite freely & unconstrainedly on any subject, conscious that in him we shall find true sympathy, comfort & help. He is by far the best "parson" I have ever known & his manly outspokeness his transparent sincerity, his broad-minded charity, his tender sympathy, his kind-heartedness, his high-mindedness and his deep & sincere love for his fellows have won for him the esteem & affection of troops of friends; & I think that the mere fact of his being such an honoured & trusted member of our little circle of friends composed as it is of such heterogenous elements speaks volumes of praise for this "Prince among parsons." He has a genuine regard for you & frequently quotes from L. of G. in his sermons at the Parish Church.

In his reply to the presentation speeches he said that when he first saw J. W. W.'s pocket book copy he felt envious. A more acceptable present could not have been selected &, opening the book & turning over its leaves he said "this book seems to bring him (i.e. you) very near to me & there seems to be an air of himself about it." It was because we knew that you were with us in spirit & because the book had come straight from your hands that we ventured to put "from Walt Whitman" upon it.

After the presentation I read aloud your kind letter to me also "Warry's" & Dr. Bucke's11 & conveyed to them your "loving salutation" to them all which they received with acclamation.

Your portrait was hanging in the room. So you see that you were really "one of us" & we feel sure that you were "one with us" too.

With love always
Yours affectionately
J Johnston

To Walt Whitman


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. Whitman's "To the Sunset Breeze" was first published in Lippincott's Magazine in December 1890. [back]

2. Whitman's essay "Old Poets" was first published in the November 1890 issue of The North American Review[back]

3. John Johnston's Notes of a Visit to Walt Whitman, etc. in July 1890 was published in Bolton by T. Brimelow & Co., Printers, &c. 1890. [back]

4. Robert Pearsall Smith (1827–1898) was a Quaker who became an evangelical minister associated with the "Holiness movement." He was also a writer and businessman. Whitman often stayed at his Philadelphia home, where the poet became friendly with the Smith children—Mary, Logan, and Alys. For more information about Smith, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Robert Pearsall (1827–1898)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. Frank Warren Fritzinger (1867–1899), known as "Warry," took Edward Wilkins's place as Whitman's nurse, beginning in October 1889. Fritzinger and his brother Harry were the sons of Henry Whireman Fritzinger (about 1828–1881), a former sea captain who went blind, and Almira E. Fritzinger. Following Henry Sr.'s death, Warren and his brother—having lost both parents—became wards of Mary O. Davis, Whitman's housekeeper, who had also taken care of the sea captain and who inherited part of his estate. [back]

6. A "literary machine" was the common name in the nineteenth century for an adjustable reading stand used for holding books or serving as a portable writing desk. Johnston's literary machine was a birthday gift from the Bolton College group (the "boys"). [back]

7. 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]

8. Wentworth Dixon (1855–1928) was a lawyer's clerk and a member of the "Bolton College" of Whitman admirers. He was also affiliated with the Labour Church, an organization whose socialist politics and working-class ideals were often informed by Whitman's work. Dixon communicated directly with Whitman only a few times, but we can see in his letters a profound sense of care for the poet's failing health, as well as genuine gratitude for Whitman's continued correspondence with the "Eagle Street College." See Dixon's letters to Whitman of June 13, 1891 and February 24, 1892. For more on Dixon and Whitman's Bolton disciples, see Paul Salveson, "Loving Comrades: Lancashire's Links to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 14, no. 2, 57–84. [back]

9. Reverend Frederick Robert Chapman Hutton (1856–1926) was the Vicar of St. George's Church, Bolton, and St. Paul's, Astley Bridge. [back]

10. On September 11–12, 1890 James W. Wallace explained that he had requested by telegram a copy of the pocket-book edition which was to be a birthday present for a member of the County Borough of Bolton (England) Public Libraries circle, the Rev. F. R. C. Hutton, for which he was enclosing 22 shillings. He also reported that the Society was meeting on the following day "to hear Dr. J[ohnston]'s account of his visit to you." Johnston himself commented on this meeting on September 13, 1890: "Nearly all 'the boys' were present with two friends & the reading of my notes &c which took place in a green field beneath a tree, occupied nearly two hours & was much enjoyed by every one & by none more than myself for I seemed to be living over again the happy time I spent with you." [back]

11. 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]


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