Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John H. Johnston to Walt Whitman, 25 September 1890

Date: September 25, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02577

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," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Brandon James O'Neil, Ryan Furlong, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

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John H. Johnston. Albert Edw. Johnston.
Diamond Merchants and Jewelers.
17 Union Square, New York.
Cor. Broadway & 15th St.
Established, 1844.
Telephone Call: 916 21st Street.
New York, Sept 25 18 901

Dear Walt:

I inclose you a letter which I wrote you last week and directed wrong as you will see2

Two letters from Traubel3 this morning, convince me that everything considered Phil. is the place,4 and I think you good folks had better go right ahead and I know it will be a great success,

Excuse haste
Sincerely yours
J H Johnston

Yes—I do appreciate what you lost5 when there was no reporter to take down Ingersoll's6 speech.7 Bertha8 never tires of talking of it, and Ingersoll has spoken to me of it so often that I know what it must have been. He is a very wonderful man.


Sept 26 '90

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).


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | N.J. It is postmarked: New York | Sep 25 | 4 PM | D; Camden, N.J. | SEP | 26 | 6AM | 1890 | [illegible]. The envelope has a printed return address: J. H. Johnston & Co., | Diamond Merchants and Jewelers, | 17 Union Square, New York. | Cor. Broadway & 15th St. [back]

2. Johnston is referring to the letter he wrote Whitman on September 22, 1890. Johnston enclosed the original envelope for the September 22 letter, on which he wrote an incorrect address for Whitman and crossed it out only to write a second incorrect address. [back]

3. 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 late 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]

4. Johnston is referring to the lecture event planned in Whitman's honor, which would take place on October 21 at Philadelphia's Horticultural Hall. Robert Ingersoll delivered the lecture. See Ingersoll's October 12, 1890 and October 20, 1890 letters to Whitman. In his letter of September 17, 1890 Bucke quoted a letter from Johnston: "This morning an hours talk with Ingersoll and I got his promise and authority to proceed and get up a lecture entertainment by him for Walt's benefit—in Phila I guess—Shall I put you on committee?" [back]

5. Johnston is responding to Whitman's discussion of his 71st birthday celebration in Philadelphia and the speech delievered by Robert Ingersoll (1833–1899) at the event. See Whitman's letter to Johnston of September 23, 1890[back]

6. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Horace Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]

7. Whitman's friends gave him a birthday supper in honor of his 71st birthday on May 31, 1890, at Reisser's Restaurant in Philadelphia, at which the noted orator Col. Robert G. Ingersoll (1833–1899) gave a "grand speech, never to be forgotten by me" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). Daniel Brinton (1837–1899), a professor of linguistics and archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, presided, and other speakers included the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) and Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914), a writer and a physician specializing in nervous disorders. The Philadelphia Inquirer carried the story on the front page on the following day. The Camden Daily Post article "Ingersoll's Speech" of June 2, 1890, was written by Whitman himself and was reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (Prose Works, 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall, 2 vols. [New York: New York University Press: 1963–1964], 686–687). Later Traubel wrote "Walt Whitman's Birthday" for Unity (25 [August 28, 1890], 215). [back]

8. Bertha Johnston was the daughter of New York jeweller, John H. Johnston. [back]


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