Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 20–21 November 1891

Date: November 20–21, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02532

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, "from J. Johnston," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Cristin Noonan, Stephanie Blalock, Alex Ashland, and Amanda J. Axley

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54 Manchester Road,
England, Novr 20th 91

Dear Walt,

Again am I your debtor for the dear good letter you sent me2 & wh. I duly received yesterday morning. My heart's best gratitude to you for it. It was indeed welcomed. Thank you also for the second letter of Dr B's3 wh, you kindly enclosed4—We are glad to have your endorsement of Dr B's opinion of our dear friend Wallace,5 for he is indeed a splendid fellow. But do you what he has written to me in reply to that letter (which I sent on to him)? He says—"'Splendid fellow' indeed! Oh how it made me wince! How it cut me! I know better." That was of course a remark of your own when someone spoke of your "blameless life."

I was pleased to note in your letter that you were then no worse as regards your health; & we continue to hope to hear still better news of you.

This morning I received & thank you for the copy of the Phila Press with what you call the "fishy" report of your visit from Arnold.6 I guess it is fishy7 & a very poor reflection of the actual occurrence. I enclose a copy of a par. in this week's Literary World8 referring to it.

I also send you a copy of the Academy9 containing an extract from Arnolds "Seas and Lands"10 in wh: he refers to his former visit to you.

Your remarks about the autograph hunters amused me, as we have one in Bolton—his name is Collins11—who has written to you twice & cannot understand why you should write to me so often & have never acknowledged his letters! "Poor creetur!"

This has been a miserably wet day here. Tonight I have had two good hours' work upon my paper (on you) wh. I am to read at the next meeting of the "Bolton Literary Society."12

It is now 11 oclock so I think I will go to bed & finish this tomorrow. Good night & God bless you!

Nov 20th 91.13

A moderately bright day with a good deal of haze & a touch of frost in the air. I have just returned from a long round of visits in my open carriage wh. I have quite enjoyed—the air outside the town is really very bracing & exhilirating. I met a friend of of mine who said—"Have you seen this week's Penny Illustrated Paper14?' "No" I said "Why?" "Because there's a nice little bit about your old friend, Whitman in it!" he replied.

I went at once to the Railway bookstall & got some copies & send one to you, one to H.L.T15 one to Andrew Rome16 & one to Dr. Bucke. It is a trifle but even as such it is very welcome to us.


I have had another short round of visits in the town, & peeped in at the annual Chrysanthemum show in the Town Hall. A really magnificent display of bloom. Surely the very acme of perfection in floriculture. The sun has just set in a cloud of glory & the entire western sky is now flooded with the deep crimson after glow wh: burns upon my window as I write & gloifies the sombre brick building of the Lanc & York Ry Good's yard opposite—(my surroundings are very prosaic)

It will interest you to know that during the contest for seats on the Bolton School Board this week the socialist candidate had a quotation from you (S D)17 on one of his posters with your name at foot. Another trifle but significant!

I must now stop as my time is up. With kindest regards to all your household—dearer to me than ever since JWWs visit—& with best love to your self

I remain
Yours affectly
J. Johnston.

PS I have just heard from Wallace to whom I had sent the Academy that he has by mistake left it at Leigh & will send it by next mail

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).


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle St | Camden | New Jersey | U. S. America. It is postmarked: Bolton | 56 | NO 21 | 91; [New York] | NOV | 29; G | 91; Paid | D | All; Camden, N.J. | NOV 30 | 6 AM | 91 | Rec'd. [back]

2. Johnston is referring to Whitman's letter of November 9–10, 1891[back]

3. 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]

4. Johnston is referring to Bucke's letter to Whitman of November 6, 1891, which Whitman had sent to Johnston as an enclosure with his letter of November 9–10, 1891[back]

5. 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]

6. Sir Edwin Arnold (1832–1904) was a British poet and journalist best known for his long narrative poem, The Light of Asia (1879), which tells the life story and philosophy of Gautama Buddha and was largely responsible for introducing Buddhism to Western audiences. Arnold visited Whitman in Camden in 1889. For an account of Arnold's visit, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, September 13, 1889 and Saturday, September 14, 1889: "My main objection to him, if objection at all, would be, that he is too eulogistic—too flattering," Whitman concluded. Arnold published his own version of the interview in Seas and Lands (1891), in which he averred that the two read from Leaves of Grass, surrounded by Mrs. Davis, knitting, a handsome young man (Ned Wilkins), and "a big setter." There are at least two additional accounts of Arnold's visit with Whitman; "Arnold and Whitman" was published anonymously in The Times (Philadelphia, PA) on September 15, 1889, and a different article, also titled "Arnold and Whitman" was published anonymously in The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA) on September 26, 1889.  [back]

7. On November 2, 1891, Arnold had paid a surprise visit to Whitman in Camden. An account of the visit was published in the Philadelphia Press with the title "A Poet's Greetings to a Poet." See Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, November 3, 1891 for more information. In his commentary, Traubel described the account of Whitman's visit with Arnold as "almost idiotic—certainly foolish." See also The Springfield Republican article published on November 7, 1891, which further reported on Arnold's visit, which Whitman and Traubel deemed an "interesting incident." [back]

8. The Literary World, published by S. R. Crocker in Boston, was a magazine devoted primarily to literary criticism. The magazine's run began in 1870 and continued until 1904, when it was incorporated in The Critic. A London edition of The Literary World was also published, and Johnston is almost certainly referring to this edition. [back]

9. Founded by the scholar and entrepreneur Charles Appleton (1841–1879), The Academy was a literature review published monthly in London at its inception in 1869 and, later, published as a weekly until 1902, when it merged with another periodical, entitled Literature[back]

10. Sir Edwin Arnold's Seas and Lands (1891) includes a record of his visit to Whitman's Camden home in 1889. In the book, Arnold talks of meeting "a very handsome brown-faced boy of nineteen in shirt-sleeves," and Dr. Johnston believes this must refer to Warry, but in fact it refers to Whitman's former nurse Edward ("Ned") Wilkins. [back]

11. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]

12. In a letter to Whitman of October 28, 1891, Johnston describes the "Bolton Literary Society," as "consisting mainly of the (so called) upper class & of wh: our F.R.C. Hutton is President." F. R. C. Hutton was Reverend Frederick Robert Chapman Hutton (1856–1926) who was also the Vicar of St. George's Church, Bolton, and St. Paul's, Astley Bridge. [back]

13. Johnston has misdated the second part of this letter. When he began the letter, he was writing on Friday, November 20, 1891; the second part should be dated Saturday, November 21, 1891. [back]

14. The Penny Illustrated Paper was an inexpensive weekly illustrated newspaper published in London from 1861 to 1913. Each issue included London news, often covering political and military happenings. [back]

15. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was a close acquaintance of Walt Whitman and one of the poet's literary executors. He met Whitman in 1873 and proceeded to visit the aging author almost daily beginning in mid-1880s. The result of these meetings—during which Traubel took meticulous notes—is the nine-volume collection With Walt Whitman in Camden. Later in life, Traubel also published Whitmanesque poetry and revolutionary essays. He died in 1919, shortly after he claimed to have seen a vision of Whitman beckoning him to 'Come on'. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. (1858–1919), Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, ed., (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 740–741. [back]

16. Andrew Rome, perhaps with the assistance of his brother Tom, printed Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) in a small shop at the intersection of Fulton and Cranberry in Brooklyn. It was likely the first book the firm ever printed. [back]

17. Johnston is referring to Whitman's 1882 autobiography Specimen Days[back]


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