Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 18 July 1891

Date: July 18, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02497

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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "see note Aug 1st 1891," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Ethan Heusser, Cristin Noonan, Brandon James O'Neil, and Stephanie Blalock



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54 Manchester Rd
Bolton
England1
July 18/91

My Dear Walt Whitman

Just a few lines to supplement Dr Bucke's2 letter to you this morning & to tell you what a good time we are having.3

Yesterday & today have been red letter days for us all. What a splendid fellow the doctor is! He has won all our hearts & we shall grudge to part with him.

Yesterday we had a glorious drive all round Belmont & Rivington. The day was magnificently fine & not too hot & we all enjoyed it greatly. Had tea at the Revd JW Thompson's4 house in Rivington—a charming little rural retreat all embowered in honeysuckle, foxgloves & roses.

Evening spent here. Nearly all the boys present.5 A downright good time. Dr read us your kind messages & gave us lots of interesting talk about you. After supper came songs, recitations—Will Law,6 our comic man in great form—speeches &c, from Wallace,7 Hutton & Dr B. Fun & frolic kept up till midnight.

We gave Dr "a touch of our quality" & I think he enjoyed it. He stayed indoors this forenoon, writing & this aft. a few of us went to Rivington with him & making our way to the secluded spot where we celebrated your birthday—a tree there has carved on it "May 31 '91"8—we sat down while Dr read to us his paper upon you (intended for the forthcoming book)9 while the trees waved overhead, the birds sang, the cattle lowed, the haymowing machine whirred & now & then the strains of a band of music belonging to a Sunday school party having their "field day" floated on the breeze.

Wallace made a neat speech in praise & [partial?] criticism of that most impressively striking essay of the Dr's & we all enjoyed our hour & a half there immensely—

Altogether a most memorable afternoon

Returning we had tea at Wallace's where I left them to attend to some professional work here.

Please thank Warry10 & Mrs Davis11 for the Canary bird12 which the Dr brought safely.—I have given it to Wallace as Warry just mentioned it in a letter to him & we had the impression that it was originally intended for him. But we regard it as a joint possession & it now graces Wallaces mantelpiece directly underneath your portrait

They all send their love to you as does

Yours affectionately
J Johnston

over

PS I hope you are keeping better these days.

Please thank Traubel for the photos wh Dr B thinks do not do him justice—they give a wrong impression of him.

All the same we are glad to have them as we now know something how our friend looks

Love to Warry Harry13 & Mrs Davis

I took a photographic group, with Dr B in it, at Rivington y'day.

Will send you copy if successful

JJ

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 NJ | U. S. America. It is postmarked: Bolton | R | JY18 | 91; Bolton | R | JY18 | 91; Bolton | R | JY18 | 91; Paid | B | All; [New] York | JUL | 31; Camden, N.J. | Aug | 1 | [illegible] | 1891. [back]

2. 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]

3. See Bucke's letter to Whitman of July 18, 1891[back]

4. Little is known about Reverend J. W. Thompson, the Unitarian minister at the Rivington Parish Church and a member of the Bolton College of English Whitman admirers. [back]

5. Johnston is referring to the "Bolton College," a group of English admirers of Whitman that he co-founded along with the architect James W. Wallace. [back]

6. Little is known about Will Law, who was part of the Bolton College group of English Whitman admirers. Johnston notes that Law was among those who went to Liverpool to see James W. Wallace and Bucke before their departures for the United States in August of 1891. See Johnston's August 26, 1891, letter to Whitman. [back]

7. 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]

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

9. Horace Traubel and Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke were beginning to make plans for a collected volume of writings by and about Whitman. Bucke, Traubel, and Thomas Harned—Whitman's three literary executors—edited In Re Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893), which included the three unsigned reviews of the first edition of Leaves of Grass that were written by Whitman himself, William Sloane Kennedy's article, "Dutch Traits of Walt Whitman," and Robert Ingersoll's lecture Liberty in Literature (delivered in honor of Whitman at Philadelphia's Horticultural Hall on October 21, 1890), as well as writings by the naturalist John Burroughs and by James W. Wallace, a co-founder of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship in Bolton, England. [back]

10. 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]

11. 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]

12. 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. According to Dr. Johnston's letter on May 19–20, 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 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]

13. Harry Fritzinger (about 1866–?) was the brother of Warren Fritzinger, who would serve as Whitman's nurse beginning in October 1889. Harry worked as an office boy in Camden when he was fourteen. He also worked as a sailor. Later, he became a railroad conductor. Mary Davis, Whitman's housekeeper, took care of both Harry and Warren after the death of their father, the sea captain Henry W. Fritzinger. Davis had looked after Capt. Fritzinger, who went blind, before she started to perform the same housekeeping services for Whitman. Harry married Rebecca Heisler on September 15, 1890. [back]


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