Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 6–7 August 1891

Date: August 6–7, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02507

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 17 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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Ballacooil Dalby Isle of Man1
Aug 6th 1891

My Dear Old Friend

Your kind p.c. of July 24th2 has been forwarded to me here—the photos referred to being I suppose detained at Bolton till my return there tomorrow.

I much regret to learn that your old trouble has returned upon you & that at the time of writing you were suffering from "fearful inertia" & I sincerely hope that since then you have had some relief from it.

Wallace3 sent me a copy of a letter wh. Traubel4 had sent to Dr Bucke,5 containing a good deal of interesting gossippy particulars about you & other friends

Our stay here has been very pleasant indeed as when we have been favoured with fine weather for the most part & the place itself is so thoroughly delightful

I have spent this afternoon strolling thro' the fields reading the "Song of Myself" aloud to the birds of the air & to the salt wind & am now drafting this letter to you sitting on a cliff overlooking the sea now on the ebb. A stiff N.W. breeze is blowing & the great waves are shivering themselves to spray & leaping in from against the Niarbyl rocks with a thunderous roar The sun is shining upon the heaving water with a dazzling gleam & some screaming seagulls are sailing high over the seaweed covered rocks where a couple of boys are crab fishing

Far as the Eye can reach "the fierce old mother endlessly crying for her castaways"6 ["]sways to & fro singing her husky song"7 the "milk white combs careering"8 over her sunlit breast.

To my right are gigantic wave-washed boulders; to my left rise the grim barren headlands of the southern extremity of the Island veiled in soft grey mist & close by me some black-faced sheep are quietly nibbling the long grass, & occasionally giving me a stare of curiosity

(Here I am interrupted will finish at Bolton tomorrow)



Bolton, England. Aug 7th 1891 We left Ballacooil early this morning & after a 5-mile drive & a 10 mile railway ride we reached Douglas where the "Mona's Queen" was waiting to carry us across the Irish Sea to Fleetwood (3½ hours). We were again favoured with fine weather & had a pleasant passage—it is often very rough—arriving home about 1 p.m. Here I found your kind p.c. of July 28th.9 The photos of the tomb10 & of yourself with the other enclosures, the oak leaves & a letter from Traubel all awaiting me.

I am particularly pleased to have the portraits—one of them is quite new to me—the tomb photo has a melancholy interest (it is not a photographic success—the print lacks vigour) & I send you most hearty thanks for all.

On behalf of the Bolton Whitman Church11 I thank you for your loving benediction & I daresay our beloved pastor—The Whitman apostle in Bolton—will be writing to you by this mail. May it be long ere its candelabras cease to blaze!

Pardon my writing more at present as I am rather busy with arrears of work

God's blessing rest on you & all your household

So long!
J Johnston

P.S. I have just received the Camden Post for Aug 1st from H.L.T.12 & have written to him. For it & for the huge honour he pays us all.

JJ

over

George Humphries13 has just been in. He is greatly pleased with your dear message & is overjoyed at the propspect of receiving L of G from you14


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 | AU 6 | 91; Paid | A | All; New York | [illegible]; Camden, N.J. | Aug | 16 | [illegible]M | Rec'd. Johnston has written his initials, "JJ," in the bottom left corner of the front of the envelope. [back]

2. See Whitman's postal card of July 24, 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. 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]

5. 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]

6. Johnston is referring to Whitman's poem "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life." In the opening section, Whitman writes, "As I walk'd where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok, | Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant, | Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways." [back]

7. This refers to Whitman's poem "On the Beach at Night Alone." Whitman's opening lines read: "On the beach at night alone, | As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song." [back]

8. Johnston quotes the phrase "milk-white combs careering" from Whitman's poem "Patroling Barnegat," which was first published in Harper's Monthly Magazine in April 1881. [back]

9. See Whitman's postcal card of July 28, 1891. [back]

10. Whitman was making plans to be buried in Harleigh Cemetery, in Camden, New Jersey, in an elaborate granite tomb that he designed. Reinhalter and Company of Philadelphia built the tomb, at a cost of $4,000. Whitman covered a portion of these costs with money that his Boston friends had raised so that the poet could purchase a summer cottage; the remaining balance was paid by Whitman's literary executor, Thomas Harned. For more information on the cemetery and Whitman's tomb, see See Geoffrey M. Still, "Harleigh Cemetery," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

11. Johnston is referring to the group of English admirers of Whitman—also known as the Bolton College—that he and the architect James W. Wallace had co-founded in Bolton, England. [back]

12. Johnston is referring to Horace Traubel's article, "Over-Sea Greeting: Walt Whitman's Fame Abroad," which was published on the front page of the Camden Post on August 1, 1891. The article discusses the Bolton College of Whitman admirers and prints Johnston's letter of May 16, 1891, and Wallace's letter of May 14, 1891, both of which sent Whitman warm greetings in advance of his upcoming 72nd (and last) birthday on May 31, 1891. Both letters were read at Whitman's birthday celebration in Camden. Traubel also wrote about the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke's trip England in July and August of 1891, during which Bucke visited Johnston and Wallace in Bolton. The article even includes a song that the Bolton College sang in honor of Bucke's arrival: "The College Welcome to Dr. Bucke, 17th of July 1891." [back]

13. Little is known about the millwright and machine-fitter George Humphries, who was a member of the Bolton College group of Whitman admirers. [back]

14. Whitman offers to send Humphries a copy of Leaves of Grass in a July 31, 1891, postal card to Johnston. [back]


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