Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 16 May 1891

Date: May 16, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02476

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, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock



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54 Manchester Road
Bolton, England
May 16th 18911

My Dear Old Friend,

My warmest thanks to you for your kindness in sending us news of you by your p.c. of May 5th which I received on May 14th.2

We were grieved to hear of your condition being "bad all around" in spite of which however you had been out the previous day.

We still keep hoping that you will get a permanent turn for the better & we must not be disheartened by the reports about & from you but keep on hoping that somehow things will come right with you.

You have our warmest sympathy in your prostration & depression & our thoughts are often & often with you, especially now that your birthday3 is drawing so near when you will receive so many expressions of sympathy & messages of good cheer from your friends all over the world.

We had a pleasant little College4 meeting at Wentworth Dixon's5 last night when J.W.W6 in your name & ours presented him with the pocket L. of G.7 on which you had so kindly inscribed his name & on which some of us also inscribed ours.

In his little speech J.W.W. made a comparison between the essential teachings of L. of G. & of Epictetus8—the stoics are favourite studies of W.D's—& shewed how L of G not only tallied all the cardinal doctrines of stoic philosophy but transcended them.

The weather here today has been extraordinary even for an English May, alternating between brilliant sunshine & showers of snow—May wedded to Decr literally—& as I write this the air is thick with the s [illegible]ging, dancing snowflakes where a few minutes ago the sunshine gleamed from the street cars.

We thank you for your loving benediction & for yr kind promise to send us the photo:9 you speak of.

All good be with you, my dearest & best of friends & His Peace be yours!

We shall be anxious till we hear some news about you.

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

I remain Yours affectly
J. Johnston

P.S. We send you the Review of Reviews10 & Black & White11

P.P.S.12 I have just read a nice letter from Edward Carpenter13 in wh: he speaks of yr old friends Mr & Mrs Lay.14


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: Camden, N.J. | May | 28 | 6 AM | 1891 | Rec'd; New York | May 27 | 91; Paid | A | All; Bolton | [illegible] | MY 16 | 91. [back]

2. See Whitman's letter to Johnston of May 5, 1891[back]

3. Whitman's 72nd (and last) birthday was May 31, 1891. [back]

4. 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]

5. 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]

6. 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]

7. 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[back]

8. Epictetus (55–135) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. Stoics believe that humans should not be controlled by fear, pain, and desire, but should contemplate them in the pursuit of self-discipline and the fair treatment of others. Stoicism is one of the fundamental components of Western ethics. [back]

9. In May 1891, the sculptor and educator Samuel Murray (1869–1941) accompanied another sculptor, William O'Donovan (1844–1920) of New York, to Whitman's home in Camden, New Jersey. Murray photographed Whitman in a profile portrait, which Whitman referred to as "the most audacious thing in its line ever taken" in his May 23, 1891, letter to James W. Wallace. He again commented on the portrait's "audacity" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, May 19, 1891) and proudly described it as "an artist's picture in the best sense" (With Walt Whitman in Camden, Saturday, May 23, 1891). [back]

10. The Review of Reviews was a magazine begun by the reform journalist William Thomas Stead (1849–1912) in 1890 and published in Great Britain. It contained reviews and excerpts from other magazines and journals, as well as original pieces, many written by Stead himself. Mary Costelloe on March 14, 1890, had sent Whitman a copy from England. [back]

11. The Black & White: A Weekly Illustrated Record and Review was an illustrated British weekly periodical founded by the English novelist and travelogue writer Charles Norris Williamson (1859–1920) in 1891. In 1912, the Black & White was incorporated with another periodical, The Sphere[back]

12. Johnston has written this postscript sideways in the left margin of the third page of the letter. [back]

13. Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) was an English writer and Whitman disciple. Like many other young disillusioned Englishmen, he deemed Whitman a prophetic spokesman of an ideal state cemented in the bonds of brotherhood. Carpenter—a socialist philosopher who in his book Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure posited civilization as a "disease" with a lifespan of approximately one thousand years before human society cured itself—became an advocate for same-sex love and a contributing early founder of Britain's Labour Party. On July 12, 1874, he wrote for the first time to Whitman: "Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. . . . For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature." For further discussion of Carpenter, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Carpenter, Edward [1844–1929]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

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


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