Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 20–21 January 1891

Date: January 20–21, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02460

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: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock



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54 Manchester Road
Bolton, England1
Jan 20th 1891

My Dear Old Friend,

By this mail I send you the current number of The Strand Magazine2—a new English periodical—mainly because it contains (p. 41) portraits of your old friend Tennyson,3 at two different periods of his life, which I thought might interest you.

J.W.W.4 called at my surgery this morning & read to me the draft of a letter to you concerning Ruskin5 which I think will please you.6 This is the most sacred of days to him (JWW), being the anniversary of his mother's7 death, which was at once the greatest calamity of his life & his most valuable experience He was just returning from the cemetery where he had probably been placing a wreath upon her grave.

It is a constant source of regret to his friends here that his health continues so indifferent—he is looking better tho' still complaining of a lack of nerve energy8—this enforced absence form the Monday night weekly meetings of "The College"9 has been a misfortune for our little society of friends, among whom he is facile princeps, & who are proud to acknowledge him Master.

"The dear fellow!" you exclaimed while reading the letter from him that I handed to you last July in your "Mickle St den."10 Yes, he is a dear fellow! How dear & how good no one knows better than I who am privileged to enjoy his closest personal intimacy—He is a man of sterling worth & his qualities of mind & heart have endeared him to all who really know him—Few men possess a better knowledge than he of what is essentially the highest & best in Literature, or a more keen & penetrating insight into the heart & meaning of the Deliverances of the Great ones of Earth, the "conscience conserving, God inculcating, inspired achievers" the "powerful & resplendent" poets, scientists & seers of the glorious past & the equally & perhaps more glorious present.11

He is really an all round splendid fellow, intellectually & morally. Gifted with a mind of a superior order he is endowed with an exalted moral nature & has attained true nobility of character.

I cannot tell you all he has been to me or how much I owe to his good influence; for he has been one of three good genii of my life—the other two being yourself & my own, dear, good old father.12 I have no truer friend—our friendship originated in & has been fused & welded into intimate &, I trust, life long cohesion mainly through our mutual love for you—and you have no warmer, whole-heart-and-soul-devoted admirer, appreciator & lover than he.

Pardon my writing thus about my friend but "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."13 & I know that my words will need no apology to you since it is in great measure thro' you that I have learned to appreciate & love such as he.

Jan 21st 91—This morning I recd a p.c. from W Sloane Kennedy,14 of which the following is a copy:—


"Belmont Mass USA
Jan 9 '91



Thank you very much for the delightful poem on Walt W. I read it through with zest. Why didnt you come & see me? I like you—yr naïveté—you are one of us I can see I had a nice visit w. Dr Bucke15 last summer. I don't understand all the allusions to a band of you in Bolton What does we mean? Send me any good word


W.S. Kennedy"

The weather here has been very erratic. Yesterday a general thaw seemed to have set in & the ice & snow were rapidly disappearing, but this morning King Frost returned in all his rigour & donned his ermine robe. It has been snowing most of the day & it has not yet (8pm) ceased.

The Curator of the Bolton Museum16 has just been in to make arrangements for the removal of my Sidney Morse17 painting of you to the walls of the Exhibition this week

I trust you are keeping better & are free from pain & distress As it is now close upon mail time I mustn't write more at present

With my kindest regards to all your household & with best heart love to yourself

I remain
Yours affectionately
J Johnston

To Walt Whitman

P.S I have heard that J.W.W. cannot send you his letter on Ruskin until next mail

JJ

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 | US America. It is postmarked: Bolton | 58 | JA21 | 91; PAID | D | ALL; N [illegible] | Feb | 2; Camden, N. [illegible] | Fe [illegible] | 6AM | 1891 | [illegible]. Johnston has written his initials, "JJ," in the lower left corner of the front of the envelope. [back]

2. The Strand Magazine was a monthly magazine founded by the English publisher and editor George Newnes (1851–1910). The magazine was published in the United Kingdom from 1891 until March 1950, and it included short fiction, series, and general interest articles. [back]

3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate of Great Britain in 1850. The intense male friendship described in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, possibly influenced Whitman's poetry. Tennyson began a correspondence with Whitman on July 12, 1871. Although Tennyson extended an invitation for Whitman to visit England, Whitman never acted on the offer. [back]

4. 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]

5. 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 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). [back]

6. Wallace's letter to Whitman of January 23, 1891 discussed Ruskin and included a copy of the January 1891 issue of The Magazine of Art, which published portraits of Ruskin. [back]

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

8. In the fall of 1891, Wallace visited Whitman in Camden and the physician Richard Maurice Bucke at Bucke's home in London, Ontario, Canada. Wallace began feeling ill on his return journey to Bolton, England, and he describes lingering cold symptoms in his letter to Whitman of December 5, 1891[back]

9. The "Bolton College" was a group of Whitman admirers located in Bolton, England. Founded by Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) and James William Wallace (1853–1926), the group corresponded with Whitman and Horace Traubel throughout the final years of the poet's life. 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). 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. Johnston visited Whitman in the summer of 1890. Accounts of Johnston's visits can be found in Johnston and James W. Wallace's Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–91 (London, England: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd., 1917). [back]

11. Johnston is quoting from Whitman's Democratic Vistas. For more information aboout the book, see Arthur Wrobel, "Democratic Vistas [1871]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

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

13. Johnston is quoting from the New Testament of the Bible. See Matthew Chapter 12, Verse 34. [back]

14. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography). Apparently Kennedy had called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

15. 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]

16. William Waller Midgley (1843–1904) was the Curator of the Bolton Museum from 1883 until 1906. He expanded the museum's holdings by establishing collections of Egyptian antiquities and textile samples. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and one of the founders of the Boltom Botanical Society. Midgley's son Thomas served as an Assistant at the Bolton Museum, aiding his father with curatorial duties before succeeding his father as Curator in 1906, a position that Thomas held until 1934 (Ray Desmond, with the assistance of Chirstine Ellwood, Dictionary of British & Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists, Including Plant Collectors, Flower Painters, and Garden Designers (London: Taylor & Francis and The Natural History Museum, 1994), 485. [back]

17. Sidney H. Morse was a self-taught sculptor as well as a Unitarian minister and, from 1866 to 1872, editor of The Radical. He visited Whitman in Camden many times and made various busts of him. Whitman had commented on an early bust by Morse that it was "wretchedly bad." For more on this, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 57–84. [back]


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