Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: James W. Wallace to Walt Whitman, 18–19 August 1890

Date: August 18–19, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.04408

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, "book sent," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Andrew David King, Cristin Noonan, and Stephanie Blalock

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18 Aug.' 1890.

Dear Walt Whitman,

Dr Johnston1 arrived at home on Friday the 8th inst, as he will have told you. On Monday, the 11th, (my birthday) he came to see me and gave me the—presents you sent me: viz the two books—("Passage to India" & "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free")2 and the magnificent photograph of yourself—(Since borrowed by him for a copy, as arranged with you).

I cannot tell you how much I prize them—especially the latter. Carlyle's3 heart was not stirred more deeply by the friendship and gifts of Goëthe4 than mine is by yours—nor, indeed, I think, nearly so much

I have thought it a sufficient, and, indeed, a great and sacred privilege to write to you at all, and to shew you some slight beginnings, even here, of the immense influence your work is destined to have, and of the deep personal love and reverence towards yourself, which must always accompany it, and which millions will yet share. And I have felt it a duty, as well as a privilege, to show my gratitude to you and to cheer you (so far as might be) by some expression of all this.

But I never dreamed of receiving such returns!

Fitly, indeed!, and with a full heart, may I "hang up your picture as that of the tenderest lover, the friend the lover's portrait, of whom his friend his lover is fondest"5—It shall adorn my room as long as I live,—reminding me daily of you, of your work and life, of your great—benefactions to me personally through your books—and to how many besides!—and (not least) of the consecrating friendship with which you have crowned them, and of the tender, thoughtful courtesy and noble kindness which you have shewn me. I trust it may also prove a daily incentive to emulation of your great qualities.

For your goodness to me—like all the good gifts of life—carries with it its own deep obligations. And these I feel to be—to live as one worthy of your friendship, and to help on, so far as I can, your influence and work.

It awakens in me an old purpose, which circumstances have for the last few years thwarted and almost crushed.

Five years ago (last January) my mother died. (You, too, know well what that means!—though I doubt if even you can have sounded so deeply—as many exceptionally harmful circumstances led me to sound—the unfathomable depths of a mothers tender, self-sacrificing love.—And the circumstances of her death, beautiful & sacred, affected me infinitely more, and were a far deeper revelation to my soul than any literature—even yours.) In the revision of my purposes and aims that followed, one fixed project with me was to contribute to current literature an account of your work that should include one or two things that have not yet been said—at any rate, not with sufficient clearness and emphasis. But many untoward circumstances (partly resulting in & including mental and nervous break down & exhaustion) have prevented me from attempting this, and I see no prospect now of carrying out my plan for a long time to come.—But I trust that the time will come,—when, perhaps, I shall be all the better fitted for it by the long delay.—At any rate "my purpose holds," and as the old painter (quoted by Emerson6) once said, not irreverently—"By God, it is in me, and shall out of me!"7

In the meantime I have led some of my friends to know you and to love you.—Dr. Johnston being one of the first. And it is your influence mainly that has made our little society of friends8 what it was lately described as being—"the truest band of brothers" the speaker had "ever met with."

(It has been very pleasant to me to note how one or two of my friends—one especially—who are not "literary" in their tastes, and who care little for any authors except Shakspere and Burns,9 but who love manly and heroic qualities, outdoor life, boating, sailing, engineering &c, and who have a deep inarticulate sense (deeper than usually goes with "culture" and esthecism) of what is good and true—are attracted by you. It is very clear to me that your ultimate absorption by this class (the class you have loved best of all) is only a matter of time and will be deep and affectionate.). It has been a very great pleasure to me to learn from Dr Johnston, particulars of his interviews with you and of your great kindness to him. He is still noticeably affected by it, and by your personal presence & conversation.—and he looks—as I told him the other day—"like one who has been awed & exalted by a supernatural visitation."

I rejoice especially to hear of your good health ("considering") and of the wonderful extent to which you have recovered from your condition two years ago. May you long enjoy health, happiness, "halcyon days,"10 and the devotion of increasing numbers of loving friends.—

Dr. Johnston's friends are all very much pleased, too, to hear of the hospitable kindness of Mrs Davis11 and of "Warren"12 towards him, and indeed, I think I will write to them direct, next mail, (per Mrs Davis) to say so.—

I asked Dr Johnston about the canary you once celebrated but he could tell me nothing of it (though he told me about your "robin") and we concluded that it must be dead. I am sorry to think that its cheering & "joyous warbles"13 are ended for you in this way.

I was deeply sorry to hear of W. D. O'Connor's death,14, of which we had seen no notice. The last thing I saw about him (some time ago) was that he was ill (in California, I believe). And now I learn that he is dead! Only the week before Dr Johnston's return I had been re-reading his letters (in Dr Bucke's15 book) with renewed pleasure in his brilliant and perfervid championships of your cause, and I almost feel now as though I, too, had lost a friend.

But I have written too long, & perhaps tired you. Again thanks to you, loved benefactor and friend, from my heart, and love to you always from self & friends.

Yours affectionately
J.W. Wallace

P.S. Aug' 19th Dr Johnston brought me a copy of "Camden's Compliments"16 and I am very pleased to see, from an advertisement at the end, that a small pocket book edition of L. of G. complete17 is in existence and it is to be had from you. It appears to be just what I want—a copy that I can carry conveniently in my pocket in my country rambles & holidays.—The ordinary edition is too large—though I have often carried it about—and the handy volume published by W Scott,18 which I usually carry, is much too incomplete. I don't know what the carriage will be, but I will enclose money order for 22s/- which I trust will cover it, and shall be glad if you will kindly send me a copy at your convenience. The fact that it comes direct from you will give it additional interest.

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).


1. 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). [back]

2. Wallace refers here to Whitman's poems "Passage to India" and "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free." [back]

3. Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) was a Scottish essayist, historian, lecturer, and philosopher. For more on Carlyle, see John D. Rosenberg, Carlyle and the Burden of History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985). [back]

4. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a German writer best known for The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Faust (1808), in which Faust sells his soul to the devil. [back]

5. Wallace is quoting from Whitman's 1860 Calamus" 10 ("You bards of ages hence!"). [back]

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was an American poet and essayist who began the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature. On November 30, 1868, Whitman informed Ralph Waldo Emerson that "Proud Music of the Storm" was "put in type for my own convenience, and to ensure greater correctness." He asked Emerson to take the poem to James T. Fields, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who promptly accepted it and published it in February 1869. For more on Emerson, see Jerome Loving, "Emerson, Ralph Waldo [1809–1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Wallace is alluding to Emerson's 1844 essay "The Poet," in which Emerson writes that the poet "says, with the old painter, 'By God, it is in me, and must go forth of me.'" [back]

8. Wallace is referring to the "Bolton College," a group of English admirers of Whitman, that he and the English physician Dr. John Johnston co-founded. [back]

9. Robert Burns (1759–1796) is remembered best as the national bard of Scotland. His poetry and use of the Scots dialect made him the first poet in the English-speaking world to be treated as a national celebrity in his lifetime, and he is often viewed as the first of the English-speaking Romantic poets. His political and religious views were seen as controversial, and after his death he became a source of inspiration for liberalism and socialism (Robert Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009]). [back]

10. Wallace is referencing Whitman's poem "Halcyon Days." [back]

11. 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]

12. 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]

13. Wallace is echoing Whitman's poem about his canary, "My Canary Bird." [back]

14. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet," published in 1866 (a digital version of the pamphlet is available at "The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication"). For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

15. 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]

16. The notes and addresses that were delivered at Whitman's seventieth birthday celebration in Camden, on May 31, 1889, were collected and edited by Horace Traubel. The volume was titled Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman, and it included a photo of Sidney Morse's 1887 clay bust of Whitman as the frontispiece. The book was published in 1889 by Philadelphia publisher David McKay. [back]

17. 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]

18. Walter Scott was a railway contractor and a publisher in London. His publishing firm, Walter Scott, was based in London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and it was the imprint under which a number of Whitman's books appeared in England. Walter Scott's managing editor was bookbinder David Gordon, and Ernest Rhys—one of Whitman's major promoters in England—worked with the firm. Rhys included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. Walter Scott also published Whitman's 1886 English edition of Leaves of Grass and the English editions of Specimen Days in America (1887) and Democratic Vistas, and Other Papers (1888). [back]


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