Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 6 May 1891

Date: May 6, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02474

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: Ethan Heusser, Cristin Noonan, Andrew David King, and Stephanie Blalock



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54, Manchester Road,
Bolton, England.
May 6th 1891.

My Dear Old Friend,

Your kind post card of April 20th1 arrived here during my absence in Scotland & I thank you for your kindness in sending it. From it I was glad to learn that you had been out-of-doors again, & I hope that by this time you are beginning to feel better & stronger. It has been a hard pull for you, "no one knows how hard," as you said to Warry.2 Bravely indeed have you borne yourself during the struggle & H.L.T.3 tells us that you do not "give in" but retain all your pristine courage, & that "the inner fire still burns."

"Oh to struggle against great odds.....to find out how much one can stand!"4

And you, my noble hearted Old Friend, have shewn us how much you can stand, & given the world a lesson it should not soon forget.

God bless you now and always, & grant you the "Peace which passeth all understanding!"5

When I think of you in your loneliness & feebleness my heart fairly yearns for you; & oh how I fret myself at my own inability to do anything for you! For what can I do except write you a letter now & again to reassure you of my continued & ever-deepening personal affection & reverence & that we, on this side, are doing what little we can to extend your influence?

What a dear, good fellow H.L.T. is to postpone his marriage6 simply because he could not get a house near you! But that is of-a-piece with all that we know of him. His self-denying devotion to you is very touching indeed & we are glad to know that you have two such loyal & true hearted souls as he & Warry7 to be with and to minister to you.

Last week I spent three days among my kinsfolk in the North; & a very heart-gladdening time I had. The weather was almost typically spring-like in character—westerly winds with some rain & intermittent sunshine & the previously stagnant vegetation had made wonderful progress; the new corn shewing above the brown earth & the trees & hedgerows tipped with delicate green, feathery tufts.

At Corby—a pretty little Cumberland village where my married sister8 lives—I saw my first swallows of this spring, darting high overhead or skimming the sunlit waters of the beautiful River Eden. The woods there are now all carpeted with daffodils & primroses; the greening meadows are bedecked with the yellow-starred celandine & the "wee, modest crimson-tipped flower,"9 with its golden eye; & Nature is robing herself in her vernal mantle of "sight-refreshing green."10

But my greatest Heart-joy was at Annan11—my native place—with my Father12—my life-long Exemplar of Truth & Righteousness—my Mother13—dearest & best of womankind in all the world to me—my dear Brother14 & my old schoolfellows & the friends of my boyhood.

The first market-day in May is the "Fair-Day" at Annan & I was present at this fair—the first time for about 15 years. It is a relic of olden times & still preserves its primitive chahracter—shows, merry-go-rounds, conjurors, cheap Jacks, sweetie, toffee & toy stalls, farm produce, shooting galleries, &c &c all 'in the streets.'

But the peculiar feature about it is the Hiring system. The farmers & the servants all congregate—in a certain portion of the High St & when the master sees a servant whom he thinks likely to suit he accosts him or her & by a series of questions & answers an agreement is come to, the bargain being clinched by the giving & receiving of some money—generally a shilling or two which is called the "earles"—thus constituting a legal contract binding upon both parties.

I took some instantaneous photographs of some of the street scenes & if they turn out successfully I may send you on or two.

After enjoying "all the fun of the fair" I strolled along the banks of my beloved "Annan Water"—a really beauitiful river which meanders its way from the Moffat hills, past the town & on to the Solway Firth referred to by Scott15 in the line—"Love flows like the Solway but ebbs like its tide."16

This little river is associated with the happy days of my childhood & it was with a swelling heart that I again looked upon the dear old spots where we used to play, run races, gather wildflowers (—why there is the very bank where we used to pluck primroses!—) bathe, boat, fish, slide &c.

What a hold these old days have upon one, & what a host of heart-stirring, & oh so sweet & sacred memories, does the sight of the old, familiar place & faces arouse within us! And with what a mighty & irresistable force does our old Home & its dear associations pull at our heart strings!

You wd realise all this the last time you visited your dear old Home at "West Hills" with Dr Bucke17 where I spent such a blissfully happy time last summer—never to be forgotten by me.

I am looking forward with a curious interest to seeing the N.E Mag with H.L.T.'s article on you & some of my photographs,18 & I hope that the tampering with the M.S.—a most indefensible proceeding—will not materially injure the article.

Since my return I have been kept extra busy owing to a renewed outbreak of the Influenza in Bolton in Common with other towns in England & I am now single handed as my assistant19 has gone up to Edinburgh for his final Examination this week

I notice that John Burroughs20 is announced to contribute an article on "Wild Flowers" to St. Nicholas soon.

This has been a truly magnificent day—soft balmy airs, brilliant sunshine & Spring's benignant presence evident everywhere

I quite enjoyed my long round of visits this morning & especially the drive in the Country where the gardens are now all radiant with blossom—the white bloom of the cherry & the plum (—the plum blossom appears before the leaves) & the sweetly delicate pink & white apple blossom than which, I think, there is nothing prettier.

I saw J.W.W.21 at noon today. He seems to be better again.

I send you a little book of photos of Annan with a small, local guide attached, wh. may interest you, both on a/c of my connection with the place & because your old friends, the Romes,22 are Annan men. I will send Andrew a copy too, I think.

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

I remain
Yours affectionately
J Johnston


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. See Whitman's postal card of April 20, 1891[back]

2. 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]

3. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was a close acquaintance of Walt Whitman and one of the poet's literary executors. He met Whitman in 1873 and proceeded to visit the aging author almost daily beginning in mid-1880s. The result of these meetings—during which Traubel took meticulous notes—is the nine-volume collection With Walt Whitman in Camden. Later in life, Traubel also published Whitmanesque poetry and revolutionary essays. He died in 1919, shortly after he claimed to have seen a vision of Whitman beckoning him to 'Come on'. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. (1858–1919), Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, ed., (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 740–741. [back]

4. Johnston is quoting Whitman's "A Song of Joys." [back]

5. Johnston is quoting from the Bible and referring to "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). [back]

6. Horace Traubel married Anne Montgomerie on May 28, 1891 (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). After Whitman's birthday celebration on May 31, the couple went to Canada with Richard Maurice Bucke, physician at the Insane Asylum in London, Ontario, and returned to Camden on June 14, 1891. [back]

7. 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]

8. Margaret (Maggie) Johnston (ca. 1855–1928?) was the sister of Dr. John Johnston. [back]

9. Johnston is quoting Robert Burnn's poem "To a Mountain Daisy" (1786). [back]

10. Johnston is quoting William Cowper's long poem "The Task" (1785), Book IV ("The Winter Evening"). [back]

11. Annan, a town in southwestern Scotland, was Johnston's birthplace and family home. [back]

12. Little is known about Dr. John Johnston's father William Johnston (1824–1898), who was a builder in Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. In 1847 William married Helen (sometimes listed as Ellen) Roxburgh (1821–1898). The couple had three children. [back]

13. Little is known about Dr. John Johnston's mother Helen (sometimes listed as Ellen) Roxburgh (1821–1898). Helen married William Johnston (1824–1898), a builder in Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in 1847. The couple had three children. [back]

14. William Joseph Johnston (1863–1935), the younger brother of Dr. John Johnston, was a solicitor in Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. [back]

15. 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 views 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]

16. Johnston is quoting from the poem "Lochnivar" by Sir Walter Scott. [back]

17. 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]

18. Horace Traubel's article, "Walt Whitman at Date," was published in the May 1891 issue of the New England Magazine 4.3 (May 1891), 275–292. The article is also reprinted in the first appendix of the eighth volume of Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden[back]

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

20. John Burroughs (1837-1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, DC, in 1864, even though Burroughs had frequented Pfaff's beer cellar, where he consistently defended Whitman's poetry, in 1862. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a lifelong correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Birds and Poets (1877), Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more information on John Burroughs see Burroughs, John [1837-1921] and Ursula [1836-1917][back]

21. 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]

22. Tom Rome (b. 1836) was a printer with A. H. Rome and Brothers, later Rome Brothers. His brother Andrew Rome, a friend of Walt Whitman, printed the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. See Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]


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