Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

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

Date: September 15, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02519

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, Lancashire.
England.1
Sept 15th 1891

My Dear Friend,

I have to acknowledge the receipt of, not one communication only, this time, but three viz:—your kind postcard of Sept 3rd,2 your good letter of Sept 4th3 (wh reached me on Sat Sept 12th) & the copy of the Camden Post for Sept 1st wh arrived here on Sept 14th.

For each & all of these kind missives from your dear hand I now return you my best and heartiest thanks, as well as for your loving messages to the "little church"4 wh. I duly delivered.

It touches us all deeply, but more especially myself, that you shd continue to write to us so often & in such good spirits in spite of your "catarrhal crises" "bad days" & general physical disability; & Warry5 tells me in a letter just recd—& for wh. I should be glad if you would kind[ly] thank him for me—that you write to few people now except your dear sister6 & myself. I cannot tell you how that piece of news touched me, filling my heart at once with humiliation and pride; & I can only say thanks, my dear, good old friend, for this signal token of your love, & God bless you now & for ever for it.

I am glad to hear of Dr Bucke's7 safe arrival at Camden & am wearying to hear about & from J.W.W.8 the news is now speeding across the Atlantic9 & I expect its arrival in England by next mail.

I have had two good letters from HLT10 full of his pulsating cameraderie & loving kindness. God bless the dear good fellow & his loving helpmeet!11

Last Sat I spent a few hours at Blackpool, where my mother,12 sister13 & nephew14 are staying for a few days

It is a town upon the Lancashire Coast, 40 miles from Bolton & a favourite resort of the people of Yorkshire & Lancashire who flock thither [illegible] [their?] thousands in summer to enjoy the grand sea, and the exhilarating, ozonic breeze[s?].

T[he] weather was superbly fine & sunny—we have just passed thro' a 4 days hot spell but have now resumed our chronic condition under Jupiter Pluvius—& greatly did I enjoy my brief sojourn "by the sad sea waves."15

I had a delicious bathe in the briny tide—then at the full—& spent the rest of the time in delightful loafing upon the splendid beach & in amusing my dear little nephew—donkey-riding, building sandcastles, digging & romping.

The country is now robed in autumn tints, the fields all glowing with the golden [gr]ain ripe for the sickle or standing in "stooks"—the stalwart harvesters busy from rosy morn till dewy eve—some of them working by moonlight—& the sound of the reaping machine filling the air. (By the way it has often struck me that that sound fits in wonderfully with the surrounding of a harvest field tho' it is the voice of a modern machine) (Tace,16 Ruskin!17)

On Friday next (Sept 18th) I purpose taking a week's holiday, spending 3 days of it at [B]lackpool with my dear wife18 & the remainder at Annan, Scotland, among my beloved Kinsfolk & the scenes of my happy boyhood's days.

What a supremely senseless par. that was about you in the N.Y. Advertiser! The truly admirable reply in the Camden Post19 should "shame the silliness out of" the poor, self-styled critic. When brains become a marketable commodity scriblerus idioticus et hoc genus omne20 will have a chance. Till then let us pity—& forgive.

Wed Sept 16th 3pm

The mail has just come bringing me letters from you, from Warry & from Wallace! Hurrah! at last we know that [he] has seen you face-to-face.

My best thanks to you for your kind letter about him.21 It does indeed rejoice my heart to hear the glad news from your hand & fills me with inexpressible emotion. Thanks & again thanks to you for your thoughtful kindness.

Warry's letter is a good long one & tells me all the particulars that I longed so much to know. I must try & send him a few lines by this mail.

Wallace's stay was brief but I understand that he is coming back to you on his return journey, & then you will have another good time together. Happy Wallace! Don't I envy him now?

God bless you & all the good folks around you & keep you all from harm is the prayer of

Yours affectionately
J. Johnston.

PS Glad to hear that you were in such good trim—for you & that you had been out for a drive.


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 N.J. | U.S. America. It is postmarked: Bolton | O | SP16 | 91; Bolton | O | SP16 | 91; New York | Sep | 25; H | 91; Paid | F | All; Camden, N.J. | Sep 26 | 6AM | 91 | REC'D. Johnston wrote his initials, "JJ," in the bottom left corner of the front of the envelope. [back]

2. See Whitman's postal card to Johnston of September 3, 1891. [back]

3. See Whitman's letter to Johnston of September 4, 1891. [back]

4. This is a reference to the "Bolton College," a group of Whitman admirers located in Bolton, England. The group was co-founded by Johnston and the architect James W. Wallace (1853–1926). [back]

5. 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]

6. Hannah Louisa (Whitman) Heyde (1823–1908), youngest sister of Walt Whitman, married Charles Louis Heyde (ca. 1820–1892), a Pennsylvania-born landscape painter. Charles Heyde was infamous among the Whitmans for his offensive letters and poor treatment of Hannah. Hannah and Charles Heyde lived in Burlington, Vermont. For more, see Paula K. Garrett, "Whitman (Heyde), Hannah Louisa (d. 1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. 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]

8. 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]

9. During the months of July and August 1891, Bucke had traveled in England in an attempt to establish a foreign market for the gas and fluid meter he was developing with his brother-in-law William Gurd. In September 1891, Bucke returned to the United States. After arriving in New York, Bucke went to Camden to see Whitman. James W. Wallace, co-founder of the Bolton College of Whitman admirers, followed shortly behind Bucke, arriving in Philadelphia on September 8, 1891 (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, September 8, 1891). After spending a few days with Whitman, Wallace returned with Bucke to London, Ontario, Canada, where he visited with Bucke's family and friends. [back]

10. 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]

11. Anne Montgomerie (1864–1954) married Horace Traubel in Whitman's Mickle Street house in Camden, New Jersey, in 1891. They had one daughter, Gertrude (1892–1983), and one son, Wallace (1893–1898). Anne was unimpressed with Whitman's work when she first read it, but later became enraptured by what she called its "pulsating, illumined life," and she joined Horace as associate editor of his Whitman-inspired periodical The Conservator. Anne edited a small collection of Whitman's writings, A Little Book of Nature Thoughts (Portland, Maine: Thomas B. Mosher, 1896). After Horace's death, both Anne and Gertrude edited his manuscripts of his conversations with Whitman during the final four years of the poet's life, which eventually became the nine-volume With Walt Whitman in Camden[back]

12. Little is known about Dr. John Johnston's mother Helen (sometimes listed as Ellen) Roxburgh (1821–1898). Helen married William Johnston (1824–1898), a builder in Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in 1847. The couple had three children. [back]

13. Margaret (Maggie) Johnston (ca. 1855–1928?) was the sister of Dr. John Johnston. [back]

14. It is uncertain which of his nephews Johnston is referring to here. [back]

15. Johnston may be alluding to the end of Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," where the "sea waves" whisper the word "Death" to the poet. [back]

16. "Tace" is Latin for "Be silent." Johnston is playfully telling art critic John Ruskin not to reprimand him for finding natural resonance in the mechanical noise. [back]

17. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was one of the leading art critics in Victorian Great Britain. Whitman sent Leaves of Grass and a "couple of photographs" to Ruskin via William Harrison Riley in March 1879 (see the letter from Whitman to Riley of March 18, 1879). Ruskin, according to Whitman, expressed "worry [...] that [Leaves is] too personal, too emotional, launched from the fires of [...] spinal passions, joys, yearnings" (see the letter from Whitman to William O'Connor of October 7, 1882). Whitman, late in life, said to Horace Traubel: "[I] take my Ruskin with some qualifications." Still, Ruskin "is not to be made little of: is of unquestionable genius and nobility" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, January 24, 1889). [back]

18. Margaret Beddows Johnston (ca. 1854–1932?) of Bolton, England, was the daughter of Thomas Beddows—a wheelwright—and his wife Mary. Margaret was a millinery worker and a dressmaker; she married Dr. John Johnston in Bolton in 1878. The couple did not have any children. [back]

19. Johnston is referring to the article, "As to Walt Whitman," which was published on the front page of the Camden Post on September 1, 1891. The article responds to criticism of Whitman published in the N. Y. Advertiser, defending Whitman's place as a poet in American letters. [back]

20. Johnston is likely combining the playful, invented Latin of "scriblerus idioticus" with the received Latin phrase "et hoc genus omne" ("and everything of this sort") to dismiss Whitman's detractors at the N.Y. Advertiser as well as those of their ilk. [back]

21. Johnston seems to be referring to Whitman's letter of September 6–8, 1891, in which the poet confirmed Wallace's safe arrival in Philadelphia and visit to Camden. [back]


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