Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

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

Date: November 18, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02530

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 notes Nov 30 1891," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Cristin Noonan, Stephanie Blalock, Amanda J. Axley, and Erel Michaelis



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54 Manchester Road,
Bolton.1
England
Nov 18th 1891

Dear Walt

After the experiences of the last three days I "feel to" address you thus—

I have so much to tell you in this letter that I scarcely know where & how to begin. Suppose we begin at the beginning!

Our dear friend J. W. Wallace2 arrived at Liverpool by the City of Berlin3 on Friday last (Novr 13th)4 & intimated his arrival by sending me a telegram—

"How's your health?" to which I replied—"Brawly, thank'ee for speirin,' hoo's a' yersel'?"

He stayed with Will Law5 (who lives at Liverpool) all night & next morning he went direct home to Anderton as he had got a little cold during the severe storm of Queenstown wh. prevented them calling there as usual & he wanted to rest awhile.

On Sunday Fred Wild6 went over to see him (I being too busy to get away) & on Monday he came by arrangement to Bolton.

I met him at the Station & oh wasn't it a gladsome reunion after our twelve weeks' separation? Arm in arm the dear good fellow & I walked down the street; & then were opened the flood gates of our long pent up talk,7 the rim of whose vast ocean we seem even now to have merely edged. It will take weeks to explore it & to put me upon equal terms with him.

I brought him here to tea & to stay the night with us & just as we sat down to tea I received your kind p.c. of Novr 5th8 in wh. you say "We all miss him" (J.W.W.) "& hate to have him go." Pointing to that sentence I said—"Do you see that, Will?" "Yes" he replied "and I'm proud of that I tell you."

Coming so opportunely your p.c. seemed like a personal greeting from you to us both & I now thank you very heartily for your kindness in sending it.

We were both pleased to receive it & to note that you were then "about the same" wh, under your circumstances is good news tho' not the best we desire to hear. After tea Will Law came in from Liverpool & at 7 p.m. we all made our way to the house of W.A. Ferguson9 who had kindly invited all the boys10 there to give Wallace our Reception upon his return from America. There was a good muster, those present being:—J.W. Wallace, Fred Wild, R.K. Greenhalgh,11 Sam Hodgkinson,12 W.A. Ferguson, Thos Shorrock13 George Humphreys,14 W.M. Law, J.B. Johnstone15 Wentworth Dixon16 & self—FRC Hutton17 was absent thro' slight illness. After the bustle & excitement of mutual greetings &c were over J.W. Wallace opened his bag & distributed the various presents he had brought with him for the boys—something for each & every one—copies of the pocketbook edition of L of G,18 "Good Bye"19 Dr Bucke's20 "Man's Moral Nature"21 (the Dr sent one to each of the boys that he met while here) & his "Walt Whitman"22 as well as copies of your autograph portraits & of one that J.W.W. got at London, Ont.

Each book had an appropriate inscription—most of them being in your own dear handwriting—& great was the joy of the boys at receiving these tokens of your love & I think some of them will be writing to thank you. But the pick of the good things fell to my lot—a copy of the Centennial (1876) Edition of L. of G.23 & Two Rivulets24 (2 vols) from you; a copy of the first edition of L of G from J.W.W. wh he got from Johnston of New York25 (who I am glad to know hails originally from my dear old Annandale) a piece of granite rock from the tomb26 sent by Mrs Davis27 & the two portraits similar to those the others got,—a perfect embarras de richesse28 indeed!

I cannot hope to be able to express my feeling to you, my good dear old friend, for your munificent gifts. That I am indeed profoundly grateful I would have you believe & that I feel your unexampled kindness to me in a way that I cannot tell you of I can but assure you "Poor in wealth I am ever poor in thanks." But I know you will take the will for the deed & add as much to the words "I thank you" as you deem fitting.—You have enriched my library as you had previously enriched my life & you have again filled my heart to overflowing—God bless you now & always!

The "prise distribution" over we had supper after which settled down to enjoy a regular, old fashioned "College meeting."

Will Law (whom Dr Bucke described as "a whole circus") sang a song I had written about "The Masther in Ameriky" (Will said he had received it from Lord Tennyson!29) after which W.A. Ferguson called upon J.W. Wallace & made a little speech. The master thereupon rose & entertained us for an hour & a half by reading extracts from his diary, referring mainly to his visits to Camden & to you which were listened to with great interest & much enjoyed by us all To me the notes were an entrancing delight & I followed every line with an interest wh. no other there could possibly feel—for didn't I know almost every place he mentioned & couldnt I hear you speaking & couldn't I feel your dear presence all the time? Yes I did relish that hour & half I tell you & it tasted good.

Since then JWW has kindly lent me his notes & I have read a great part of them & I can honestly say that I have not read any thing for a very long time wh has so fascinated me & held me spell bound

But revenons à nos moutons.30 After the reading of the notes we had speeches, very short & pithy from several of the boys, & songs—two of these original ones by W. Dixon & self of welcome home to the Master into the singing of which we put the full complement of college enthusiasm.

Then more talk till 11.30 p.m. when we all left & came home by train. Before leaving W.A. Ferguson opened a bottle of sparkling moselle & we all drank the healths of Walt Whitman, JW Wallace & Mr & Mrs Ferguson; & thus ended another of our pleasant social evenings & a very memorable one too.

JWW is looking well and seems to be much better than when we last saw him. He is also in pretty buoyant spirits & is very enthusiastic about you & all the good folks who treated him so kindly at Camden

Last Sunday night I went to St George's Church of wh F.R.C. Hutton is the vicar when—it being Mayor's Sunday—he preached to the Mayor31 & corporation. At the conclusion of his sermon he gave a long quotation from the "Song of the Universal"32 mentioning you by name. Several of the boys were there & it was a pleasant experience for us to hear you quoted from the pulpit of one of the principal churches in the town of Bolton—the first fruits of your great harvest.

I am sending Horace33 a short letter, but as I have not time to give him the details of our proceedings I would like you to show this letter to him at your convenience.

Also such parts of it to Mrs D. & Warry34 as you think may be of interest to them. It is a wretched scrawl I know but I have had to hurry over it to get it off by this mail. So please pardon it & its imperfections.

With best love to you always

I remain
Yours affectly
J Johnston

PS I omitted to say that JWW also read to us Dr B's account of his "spiritual experience"


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 the architect 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: This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle St | Camden | New Jersey | U.S. America. It is postmarked: Bolton | 56 | NO18 | 91; | Bolton | 56 | NO18 | 91; New York | Nov 29 | 91; | G | 91; PAID | G | All; [Camden,] N. J. | Nov | 29 | 6AM | 91. [back]

2. James William Wallace (1853–1926), of Bolton, England, was an architect and great admirer of Whitman. Wallace, along with Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927), a physician in Bolton, 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]

3. The SS City of Berlin was a British ocean liner which began transatlantic operation in 1875 and for a while was the fastest liner on the Atlantic; it stayed in passenger service until 1898. [back]

4. Wallace had recently returned to his home in Anderton (near Bolton), Lancashire, England, after spending several weeks traveling in the United States and Canada. During his trip, Wallace visited Whitman in Camden, and, after spending a few days with the poet, Wallace traveled with the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke to Bucke's home in 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]

5. Little is known about Will Law, who was part of the Bolton College group of English Whitman admirers. Johnston describes Law as the group's "comic man" in a July 18, 1891, letter to Whitman. Johnston also notes that Law was among those who were in Liverpool to see James W. Wallace and the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke before their departures for the United States in August of 1891. See Johnston's August 26, 1891, letter to Whitman. [back]

6. Fred Wild (d. 1935), a cotton waste merchant, was a member of the "Bolton College" of Whitman admirers and was also affiliated with the Labour Church, an organization whose socialist politics and working-class ideals were often informed by Whitman's work. A painter and scholar of Shakespeare, he was also a lively debater. With James W. Wallace and Dr. John Johnston, Wild formed the nucleus of the Bolton Whitman group. For more on Wild and Whitman's Bolton disciples, see Paul Salveson, "Loving Comrades: Lancashire's Links to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 14.2 (1996), 57–84. [back]

7. Johnston is perhaps referring to Whitman's poem "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers"[back]

8. See Whitman's postal card to Johnston of November 5, 1891[back]

9. Little is known about W. A. Ferguson, who was affiliated with the Little Hulton branch of the Bank of Bolton and was a member of the Bolton College group of admirers of Whitman in Bolton, Lancashire, England. [back]

10. The "Bolton College" was a group of Whitman admirers located in Bolton, England. Founded by Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) and James William Wallace (1853–1926), the group corresponded with Whitman and Horace Traubel throughout the final years of the poet's life. 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). 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]

11. Richard Greenhalgh, a bank clerk and one of Whitman's Bolton admirers, frequently hosted annual celebrations of the poet's birthday. In his March 9, 1892, letter to Traubel, Greenhalgh wrote that "Walt has taught me 'the glory of my daily life and trade.' In all the departments of my life Walt entered with his loving personality & I am never alone" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, March 20, 1892). James Wallace described Greenhalgh as "undoubtedly a rich, royal, plain fellow, not given to ornate word or act" (Sunday, September 27, 1891). For more on Greenhalgh, see Paul Salveson, "Loving Comrades: Lancashire's Links to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 14.2 (1996), 57–84. [back]

12. Sam Hodgkinson, a hosiery manufacturer, was a friend of the architect James W. Wallace and the physician Dr. John Johnston, both of Bolton, Lancashire, England (Johnston and Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends [London : G. Allen & Unwin, ltd., 1918], 104). [back]

13. Thomas Shorrock was a clerk in the Bolton police court. [back]

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

15. "Embarras de richesses" is a French phrase meaning "Embarrassment of Riches." [back]

16. Wentworth Dixon (1855–1928) was a lawyer's clerk and a member of the "Bolton College" of Whitman admirers. He was also affiliated with the Labour Church, an organization whose socialist politics and working-class ideals were often informed by Whitman's work. Dixon communicated directly with Whitman only a few times, but we can see in his letters a profound sense of care for the poet's failing health, as well as genuine gratitude for Whitman's continued correspondence with the "Eagle Street College." See Dixon's letters to Whitman of June 13, 1891 and February 24, 1892. For more on Dixon and Whitman's Bolton disciples, see Paul Salveson, "Loving Comrades: Lancashire's Links to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 14.2 (1996), 57–84. [back]

17. Reverend Frederick Robert Chapman Hutton (1856–1926) was the Vicar of St. George's Church, Bolton, and St. Paul's, Astley Bridge. [back]

18. Whitman had a limited pocket-book edition of Leaves of Grass printed in honor of his 70th birthday, on May 31, 1889, through special arrangement with Frederick Oldach. Only 300 copies were printed, and Whitman signed the title page of each one. The volume also included the annex Sands at Seventy and his essay A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads. See Whitman's May 16, 1889, letter to Oldach. For more information on the book see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary[back]

19. Johnston is referring to Whitman's Good-Bye My Fancy (1891). Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) was Whitman's last miscellany, and it included both poetry and short prose works commenting on poetry, aging, and death, among other topics. Thirty-one poems from the book were later printed as "Good-Bye my Fancy 2d Annex" to Leaves of Grass (1891–1892), the last edition of Leaves of Grass published before Whitman's death in March 1892. For more information see, Donald Barlow Stauffer, "'Good-Bye my Fancy' (Second Annex) (1891)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

20. 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]

21. Man's Moral Nature (1879) was Bucke's first book. He dedicated it "to the man of all men past and present that I have known who has the most exalted moral nature—Walt Whitman." [back]

22. Bucke was Whitman's first biographer. Bucke's book, Walt Whitman, was published by the Philadelphia Publisher David McKay in 1883. [back]

23. During America's centennial celebration in 1876, Whitman reissued the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass in the repackaged form of a "Centennial Edition" and "Author's Edition," with each copy personally signed by Whitman. For more information, see Frances E. Keuling-Stout, " Leaves of Grass, 1876, Author's Edition." [back]

24. Two Rivulets was published as a "companion volume" to the 1876 Author's edition of Leaves of Grass. Notable for its experimentations in form, typography, and printing convention, Whitman's two-volume set marks an important departure from previous publications of Leaves. The book, as one critic of the The New York Daily Tribune wrote, consisted of an "intertwining of the author's characteristic verse, alternated throughout with prose." For more information on Two Rivulets, see Frances E. Keuling-Stout, "Two Rivulets, Author's Edition [1876]" and "Preface to Two Rivulets [1876]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

25. John H. Johnston (1837–1919) was a New York jeweler and close friend of Whitman. Johnston was also a friend of Joaquin Miller (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, August 14, 1888). Whitman visited the Johnstons for the first time early in 1877. In 1888 he observed to Horace Traubel: "I count [Johnston] as in our inner circle, among the chosen few" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, October 3, 1888). See also Johnston's letter about Whitman, printed in Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915), 149–174. For more on Johnston, see Susan L. Roberson, "Johnston, John H. (1837–1919) and Alma Calder," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

26. 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]

27. 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]

28. "Embarras de richesses" is a French phrase meaning "Embarrassment of Riches." [back]

29. 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]

30. "Revenons à nos moutons" is a French expression that means "Let's get back to the subject at hand." [back]

31. The Mayor of Bolton at the time was William Nicholson (1825–1915), a silk mercer and draper. First elected in May 1891, Nicholson served until 1894 and then again in 1898-1899. He twice acted as caretaker mayor of Bolton, serving as a stand-in for Benjamin Alfred Dobson in 1898 and for John Edwin Scowcroft in 1901 (Information for this note provided by the Bolton Historical Society). [back]

32. Wallace is referring to Whitman's "Song of the Universal," which was first published in the New York Daily Graphic and The New York Evening Post on June 17, 1874. [back]

33. 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]

34. 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. A picture of Warry is displayed in the May 1891 New England Magazine (278). See Joann P. Krieg, "Fritzinger, Frederick Warren (1866–1899)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 240. [back]


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