Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 2 September 1891

Date: September 2, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02515

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: Ethan Heusser, Cristin Noonan, Brandon James O'Neil, and Stephanie Blalock



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54, Manchester Road,
Bolton, England.1
Sept 2nd 1891.

My Dear Friend,

The American mail arrived here an hour ago & brought me your dear, good letter of Aug 23rd & 24th2 with Sloane Kennedy's3 letter to you enclosed,4 for which I return you my most cordial thanks.

I am indeed glad to know that things, on the whole, go on fairly well with you & that you are able to sleep better & to be up, take your food & stand your "stout massage"5that you must surely keep up at all inconveniences; it is the very life of you—for dear J. W. Wallace6 is by this time within four days of you7 & is cleaving his way toward you as fast as iron & steam can take him.

In your letter you say that your "missives are probably monotonous enough, the same old story over & over again."

Ah my dear, good old Friend if you knew how I long for those dear missives, how s[w]eetly precious & how prized they are you would not speak of monotony. To me they are as welcome as the flowers in spring & I dare not think of the time when I shall cease to receive them.

I am deeply touched by your reference to your "fast dimming" eyesight & by the thought that you should continue to write to me when I know that the effort must be considerable. God bless you continually & preserve you from disaster for many a long day to come!

Since Wallace left us we have been living a life of quiet, hopeful & patient expectancy. At our meeting on Monday last—wh. was held here—we spent the time in reading over our Whitman Correspondence—including H.L.T's8 wonderfully sweet & precious letters—in loving talk about you & Wallace & in reading bits from L. of G e.g. "Out of the rolling ocean"9 &c &c.

By the time you receive this Wallace will have seen & held loving converse with & will probably have gone on to Canada with Dr. Bucke.10

Happy fellow! How I "Envigres"11 him! But I have had my innings & now he is having his. But all the same I say "Happy fellow!"

I am a little impatient of the long time that must elapse before I can hear from him about his visit to you as I do so long to hear his story. But I must possess my soul in patience & in due time all will come right

I enclose a cutting from "The Queen"12 of June 13/9113 which will certainly amuse you.



Walt Whitman, the American poet, celebrated his seventy-second birthday on May 3114 in a quiet but happy way. The weather was delightful, and Mr Whitman sat in a little summer-house receiving callers nearly all day. The arbour was filled with flowers before dusk. The "good grey poet," though not able to get about very briskly, is in good health and spirits. The old gentleman entertained his guests with selections from his own works. From time to time, as groups gathered, he would open a volume, and eyeing his audience critically, select a passage which he believed would please them. Letters of congratulation were received from Lord Tennyson15 and many others.16

It is a good "specimen["] of the "Society" journalist's power of imagination & his faculty of evolving a par from his inner consciousness. The picture of an "old gentleman" "in good health & spirits["] tho' "not able to get about very briskly" "entertaining his guests" in a flower-filled, summer arbour "with selection from his own works" which his critical eye told him wd be likely to "please them" is distinctly & nobly comic when applied to you & your birthday! And "The Queen" is by no means poses as a comic paper!

With kindest regards to all your household & to HLT & with best love to yourself

I remain
Yours affectionately
J Johnston

PS Have just read John Burroughs17 article in Sept Atlantic—"A Study of Analogy"18


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: [illegible]W YORK | [illegible] A | 91; PAID | H | ALL; CAMDEN, N. J. | SEP 14 | 6AM | 91 | REC'D. The Bolton postmark is entirely illegible. Johnston has written his initials, "JJ" in the bottom left corner of the front of the envelope. [back]

2. See Whitman's letter to Johnston of August 23–24, 1891. [back]

3. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography). Apparently Kennedy had called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. It is uncertain which of Kennedy's letters Whitman included as an enclosure with his August 23–24, 1891, letter to Johnston. [back]

5. Whitman's nurse at the time, Warren Fritizinger, regularly gave the poet massages. [back]

6. 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]

7. In September 1891, Wallace traveled to the United States, arriving at Philadelphia on September 8, 1891 (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, September 8, 1891). Wallace's arrival was shortly preceded by that of the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke, who had recently returned from two months of travel in Europe, where he had spent time with Johnston, Wallace, and the Bolton College group of English Whitman admirers. Both Bucke and Wallace visited Whitman in Camden, and, after spending a few days with the poet, Wallace returned with Bucke to London, Ontario, Canada, where he met Bucke's family and friends. Wallace's account of his time with Whitman was published—along with the Bolton physician John Johnston's account of his own visit with the poet in the summer of 1890—in their memoir, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). [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. Johnston is referencing Whitman's poem "Out of the Rolling Ocean, The Crowd." [back]

10. 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]

11. Johnston playfully uses an obsolete French term for "envies" here. [back]

12. The Queen: The Ladies Newspaper and Court Chronicle (often referred to as The Queen) was formed in 1864 from the merger of two papers. The English lawyer and legal writer Edward William Cox (1809–1879) purchased both Samuel Orchart Beeton's (1830–1877) The Queen, as well as a rival paper called The Ladies Paper, merging them into a new publication. British journalist Elizabeth Lowe (1829–1897) became the editor of the The Queen for thirty years, enlarging the publication to include color plates, patterns, advertisements, and fiction. [back]

13. See Whitman's letter to Johnston of August 23–24, 1891. [back]

14. 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]

15. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate of Great Britain in 1850. The intense male friendship described in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, possibly influenced Whitman's poetry. Tennyson began a correspondence with Whitman on July 12, 1871. Although Tennyson extended an invitation for Whitman to visit England, Whitman never acted on the offer. [back]

16. Johnston wrote the following source information on the newspaper clipping, "From 'The Queen, the Lady's Newspaper, June 13.1891." [back]

17. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a lifelong correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

18. Johnston is referring to "A Study of Analogy," by John Burroughs, which was published in The Atlantic Monthly 68 (September 1891), 340–347. [back]


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