Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 19–20 May 1891

Date: May 19–20, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02477

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.

Notes for this letter were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), and supplemented, updated, or created by Whitman Archive staff as appropriate.

Editorial note: The annotation, "see notes May 30 1891," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Ethan Heusser, Cristin Noonan, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock



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54, Manchester Road
Bolton, Lancashire,
England.1
May 19th 1891.

My Dear Old Friend,

Just a line or two to acknowledge the receipt, this morning, of your kind p.c. of May 8th2 & to send you my heartfelt thanks for it.

I took it to Wallace3 who shewed me a good long letter he had recd from Warry,4 in which he gives us some interesting details concerning you and suggests sending your canary bird to him5that we should prize very highly indeed, as coming direct from you.

It was with deep regret that we read on your p.c. of your "bad three weeks" & that the "same subject" was "continued"; but how like you to say that you are "still not dislodged" & that you have "hope of sending us better accts. by & by"!

From this p.c. & from Warry's letter we can partly realize how poorly you continue, but even that does not prevent your sitting "up in the big chair & writing" to us & sending your love & your benediction across the seas to us in token of your abiding affection, for which we send you our warmest appreciative thanks & our loving greeting.

Warry tells us that you will probably have a few friends with you on your birthday6 & that you will not risk going out of your own house even tho' there may be a gathering in your honour in the town—This, I think, is wise, under the circumstances, as the inevitable excitement would probably be injurious to you—

I only hope that you will be no worse for what the day will entail upon you even at home.

I have no doubt that the numerous messages of love & sympathy from your "dear friends, your lovers," in all parts of the world will hearten & cheer you in no ordinary way.

I hope Dr Bucke7 will be able to be with you. If so will you please convey my kindest regards & best wishes to him?

We hope most earnestly that the 31st will find you in better health than you have had lately & that you may have a truly happy birthday.

We shall not allow the occasion to pass without special recognition and observance tho' the fact of its being on a Sunday this year will compel us to modify our usual custom. But whatever we do the day will be full of tender & loving thoughts of you.

May 20th 5 p.m.

At noon today my eyes were gladdened by the rect of a copy of the New England Magazine for May containing H. L. Traubel's8 most interesting article upon you "to date,"9 & I thank you most heartily for your kindness in sending it. Later I recd the ordered copies from H. L. T. himself.

It is a great pleasure to me to see some of my photographs reproduced in an article by such a warm-hearted friend & such a ready penman as our dear H. L. T. And it is an honour too of wh: I am indeed proud, because it associates me with you in a permanent form.

The article itself is characterised by all the graphic power, enthusiastic fervour, & literary skill of pourtrayal which distinguishes H.L.T.'s work.

But I fear this letter is already too long—at a time too when you will be burdened with an extra heavy mail.

I send you a copy of "Pictures of 1891"10 which it may interest you to look through sometime. At page 106 is a reproduction of Whistler's11 portrait of Carlyle.12

With kindest regards to all your household—please thank Warry & Mrs Davis13 for their kind remembrance of me in Warry's letter—& with best love to yourself

I remain
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. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle St | Camden | New Jersey | U.S. America. It is postmarked: Bolton | 56 | MY20 | 91; Camden, N.J. | May | 23 | 6 AM | 1891 | Rec'd; New York | May 27 | 91; Paid | All. Johnston has written "JJ." in the lower lefthand corner of the recto. [back]

2. See Whitman's letter to Johnston of May 8, 1891[back]

3. 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]

4. 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]

5. When Whitman's canary died, Warry (Whitman's nurse) and Mrs. Davis (Whitman's housekeeper) had it stuffed and placed on the mantle beneath a photograph. Warry had apparently suggested that the poet give it to the Bolton group. Bucke duly took it with him when he went to England, and on July 23 the architect and co-founder of the Bolton group of Whitman admirers, James W. Wallace thanked Whitman for "a very affecting & precious souvenir of you to me." On August 3 he wrote to Mrs. Davis: "I need not to tell you how deeply I prize it. It is a very precious & affecting souvenir of Mr. Whitman—of his lonely room, his thoughts & memories, & the cheer received from the canary's (also caged imprisoned) joyous warblings. It connects itself with memories of my mother's like condition—her only companion often a canary too." See the letter from Wallace to Mary Davis in the Papers of Walt Whitman (MSS 3829), Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Albert H. Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia. See also Johnston and Wallace's Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–91 (London, England: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd., 1917), 60–61n. [back]

6. Whitman's seventy-second (and last) birthday, May 31, 1891, was celebrated with friends at his home on Mickle Street. He described the celebration in a letter to Dr. John Johnston of Bolton, England, dated June 1, 1891: "We had our birth anniversary spree last evn'g—ab't 40 people, choice friends mostly—12 or so women—Tennyson sent a short and sweet letter over his own sign manual . . . lots of bits of speeches, with gems in them—we had a capital good supper." [back]

7. 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]

8. 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]

9. See Traubel's article, "Walt Whitman At Date," The New England Magazine, vol. 4, no. 3, May 1891, pp. 275–292. [back]

10. The Pictures of 1891 was an "Extra" (no. 55) published on May 4, 1891, by the Pall Mall Gazette, with contributions by the Royal Academy, the New Gallery, the New English Art Club, and others, and it included Whistler's portrait of Carlyle. The Gazette published such a gathering of pictures annually for a number of years. [back]

11. James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was an American painter from Lowell, Massachusetts, who was active primarily in the United Kingdom during the American Gilded Age. He is famous for his painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, which is usually referred to as Whistler's Mother[back]

12. Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) was a Scottish essayist, historian, lecturer, and philosopher. For more on Carlyle, see John D. Rosenberg, Carlyle and the Burden of History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985). [back]

13. Mary Oakes Davis (1837 or 1838–1908) was Whitman's housekeeper. For more, see Carol J. Singley, "Davis, Mary Oakes (1837 or 1838–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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