Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 3 June 1891

Date: June 3, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02482

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.

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



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54 Manchester Road
Bolton
England1
June 3rd 1891

My Dear Old Friend and Master,

We are wondering how your birthday found you,2 how you stood the inevitable excitement of the day & are looking anxiously for some news about you.

With us the day dawned gloriously fine & the sun shone resplendently the whole day long. It was a perfect day here & we hope that it was as auspicious at Camden as it was at Bolton

In the afternoon—after arranging for our cablegram to be sent off at 5 p.m—I went out to Anderton where I found Wallace3 & Greenhalgh.4 They had spent the morning in the fields with L. of G & together we all went out, &, selecting a shady nook on a grassy bank overlooking the lake we sat down for an hour & a half during which Wallace [illegible] us what he calls one of his "informal talks" upon your attitude to Religion, with readings from L. of G & Good Bye My Fancy,5 which we both enjoyed greatly.

We sat against a stone wall, beneath the shade of some wide spreading sycamores & mountain ashes, overlooking a wide expanse of pastoral country dotted with old time, grey & white farm houses near which the sheep & cows were quietly feeding. On our right rose the grand outline of the rugged old Pike, grass clad to the top.

In the middle distance lay the lake, to purple waters sparkling in the sunshine & rippling in tiny white-crested wavelets to the banks.

The weathercock of Rivington chapel spire caught the rays of the sun & shone like a star.

At our feet lay the white roadway & the grey stone work of the low-arched bridge at one end of which a clump of prickly gorse flung out its golden bells.

The birds sang & twittered joyously in the swaying & rustling trees overhead & a gentle breeze played around us, bending the blades of the new grass & dappling the greenery with ever shifting leaf shadows.

Upon the lovely landscape the sun shone with dazzling effulgence from out the white-cloud-flecked empyrean.

To me it was a sweetly sacred hour & my heart was full of the tenderest & most hallowed thoughts of you beloved Friend & Benefactor & the day will be ever memorable to us all.

Wentworth Dixon6 joined us at tea after which I had to leave them to attend to some professional work in the evening

I have read most of "Good Bye" now. It arouses emotions & thoughts too sacred & solemn for expression & its every line is precious to me.

My heart's best love goes over the sea to you with a great & tender yearning.

Heaven's best blessing be yours now & always!

Yours, devotedly,
J. Johnston.

To Walt Whitman.

P.S.7 The "British Prince"—my ship—sails from Liverpool today.8 How I wish I were going too!


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 | JU 3 | 91; New York | Jun | 10; 91; Paid | D | All; Camden, N.J. | Jun | 11 | 6 AM | 1891 | Rec'd. Johnston has written his initials, "JJ," in the left corner of the recto of the envelope. [back]

2. Whitman's seventy-second (and last) birthday 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—[Alfred, Lord] 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]

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. Richard Greenhalgh, a bank clerk and one of Whitman's Bolton admirers, frequently hosted annual celebrations of the poet's birthday. In his March 9, 1892, letter to Traubel, Greenhalgh wrote that "Walt has taught me 'the glory of my daily life and trade.' In all the departments of my life Walt entered with his loving personality & I am never alone" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, March 20, 1892). James Wallace described Greenhalgh as "undoubtedly a rich, royal, plain fellow, not given to ornate word or act" (Sunday, September 27, 1891). For more on Greenhalgh, see Paul Salveson, "Loving Comrades: Lancashire's Links to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 14, no. 2, 57–84. [back]

5. Whitman's book Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) was his last miscellany, and it included both poetry and short prose works commenting on poetry, aging, and death, among other topics. Thirty-one poems from the book were later printed as "Good-Bye my Fancy 2d Annex" to Leaves of Grass (1891–1892), the last edition of Leaves of Grass published before Whitman's death in March 1892. For more information see, Donald Barlow Stauffer, "'Good-Bye my Fancy' (Second Annex) (1891)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. 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]

7. Johnston has written this postscript on the left side of this page of the letter. [back]

8. Johnston is recalling his trip to visit Whitman in Camden, New Jersey, in the summer of 1890. Johnston's account of his time with Whitman was published—along with the Bolton architect James W. Wallace's account of his own visit with the poet in the fall of 1891—in their memoir, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). [back]


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