Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 15 July 1891

Date: July 15, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02496

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: Andrew David King, Cristin Noonan, and Stephanie Blalock



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54 Manchester Rd Bolton England
July 15th, 1891

My Dear Old Friend,

This is a sacred day for me—a day replete with sweet & tender associations; for it is the Anniversary of the Day when I first saw you face to face, took you by the hand, sat & talked with you—a day for ever memorable to me as one of the three supremely Happy Days in my life. These are:—



I The Day when I was "capped" & received my Degree at the University of Edinburgh— (Aug 1st 1874)
II The Day I was married (Decr 18th 1878)
III The Day when I first saw Walt Whitman (July 15th 1890)

'Tis only a year since I first made your acquaintance; but what a year it has been for me! How rich, how full of soul-life! Only a year! And yet I seem to have known you all my life!

I have thought much of you today & my heart has gone out with a great longing yearning to be with you & near you & to bathe myself in the sweet aroma of your personal presence.

I had hoped to have another association connected with this memorable Day viz:—to meet; Dr Bucke1 but unfortunately we learn that the Britannic will not arrive at Liverpool until the evening of the 16th or the morning of the 17th.2 So that we shall probably have our "College meeting"3 on the 17th.

Having an hour at liberty this afternoon I escaped to my little woodland haunt (in Raikes wood) where I draft this letter, surrounded by waving, rustling trees, the songs of birds the humming of bees, the long slender grasses The flowering umbelliferous plants, the pretty wild flowers upon which at this moment the sun is shining & lighting up the recesses of the sloping bank covered with its "sight-refreshing green."4

This morning I read a short letter from your friend Talcott Williams5 acknowledging rect of the facsimile letter. He tells me that you were then "pretty well"

I also recd a good letter (photo's not recd yet) from H L T6 in wh: he says that encouragement is your guest & that on the whole you have spent better days with cheerier converse since than before the dinner7 & that the weather is in your favour. As I cannot write to him now wd you please kindly thank him for the letter?

We are indeed delighted to hear such favourable accounts of you & we cordially hope that you will not only maintain your ground but gain fresh strength.

As I write this a thrush pipes near me & seems to say:—"Walt! Walt! Walt!" "God bless him! God bless him! God bless him!" "Good cheer! Good cheer! Good cheer!" "Give him my love! Give him my love!"

Yes little birdie; I will send him your loving message, along with my own.

"So long," friend of friends from
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. 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]

2. 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]

3. Wallace is referring to the "Bolton College," a group of English admirers of Whitman, that he and the English physician Dr. John Johnston co-founded. [back]

4. Johnston is quoting William Cowper's 1785 poem "The Task" (Book IV, "The Winter Evening"): "These serve him with a hint / That Nature lives; that sight-refreshing green / Is still the livery she delights to wear. . . ." [back]

5. Talcott Williams (1849–1928) was associated with the New York Sun and World as well as the Springfield Republican before he became the editor of the Philadelphia Press in 1879. His newspaper vigorously defended Whitman in news articles and editorials after the Boston censorship of 1882. For more information about Williams, see Philip W. Leon, "Williams, Talcott (1849–1928)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. 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]

7. 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]


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