Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Dr. John Johnston to Walt Whitman, 27 December 1890

Date: December 27, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.05040

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.

Related item: Whitman composed a letter to Richard Maurice Bucke, dated January 9–10, 1891, on a blank surface adjacent to page 5 of Johnston's letter. He sent Johnston's letter as an enclosure to Bucke. See loc.08195.

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



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54 Manchester Road
Bolton
Lancashire England
Decr 27th 1890

Many thanks to you, my dear old friend, for your kindness in sending me the Philadelphia paper (with the marked paragraph) received on the 24th inst and the Engineering Record1 (containing your pithy and entirely admirable sketch of the career of your late brother Jefferson2) received today. Both are welcomed for their own sake but mainly as messengers of the glad tidings that at the time of their dispatch you were in better health than when you last wrote to me. I hope sincerely that this is so & I am longing to hear a better report.

I trust you have spent a truly happy Christmastide & that the New Year may bring you renewed health with every blessing & vigour with every blessing & "joy, shipmate joy!"3

I am anticipating the publication of your forthcoming volume with pleasurable & eager interest. Will you please be kind enough to forward four copies to me (for myself JWW4 and two of the friends5) and I will remit the cash on receipt?

We had a thoroughly enjoyable old fashioned Christmas day here—a sort of ideal day—a snow mantled outer world, a keen frost and a dry crisp atmosphere, but no sunshine—and we spent it in the orthodox fashion, beginning the day by listening to the Christmas Carollers singing their joyous songs & choruses in the early morning—it was very nice to lie abed and hearken to the blending voices of the singers wafted in melody across the moonlit, snow-clad street—dining at the house of a friend in the orthodox English style upon roast goose & plum pudding with (—tell it not in Gath!6—) brandy sauce—finishing the day by a little social "party" at our house.

Since then there has been a thaw but the temperature has again fallen to freezing & there has been another slight fall of snow in the night. As I write the sun is shining fitfully on the white-roofed houses & a few sparrows are pecking up the breadcrumbs on the outer window-sill. Poor brave, blithe-hearted, russet-coated little birdies! It is a hard winter for you and your tiny companions. I wonder how many of you will survive it to gladden our hearts & to make our vernal woodlands vocal with your sweet melodiousness! Never mind! Cheer up! For

"Soon shall the winter's foil be here;
Soon shall these icy ligatures unbend
and melt. A little while
And air, soil, wave suffused
shall be in softness, bloom growth
A thousand forms shall rise
- - - - - - - - - - - -
With these the robin, lark, &
thrush, singing their songs—"7

One result of our Xmas gathering was a proposal to give a free dinner & entertainment to 500 of the poor children in the "slums" of Bolton. The necessary money having been promised the treat will take place shortly.

Another treat in store for us is a Children's Party which my wife8 & I intend giving in our house, when we expect some 40 or 50 of our friends' children to spend the afternoon & evening in games, fun & such general jollification as the youngsters delight in. Oh! that we could have you to come amongst us on that night!

It will interest you to know that I have received a brief letter of acknowledgment of my "Notes"9 & of your portrait from Lord Tennyson10—in his own hand—& a really splendid letter from your friend John Addington Symonds,11 a copy of which I herewith enclose12 as I thought you wd be pleased to read it. Perhaps Dr Bucke13 wd like to see it, too. If you think so you might send it to him.

I also send you copies of some verses I sent to some of my friends & a copy of this week's Annandale Observer containing a notice of my "Notes." I—like Mr Rome14—am a native of Annan, in Scotland, where my dear, good, old father15 & mother16 still reside.

I have just heard from JWW that he has received a paper from you.

With kindest regards & best wishes for the new year to all your household & with best heart—love to yourself

I remain
Yours affectionately
J. Johnston


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. Horace Tarr (ca.1844–1922), the nephew of the Brooklyn engineer Moses Lane (1823–1882) had asked Whitman to write an obituary notice for his brother Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Whitman (1833–1890) that could be published in the engineering journals. See Tarr's letter to Whitman of December 1, 1890. Whitman's obituary of Jeff, "An Engineer's Obituary," was published in The Engineering Record on December 13, 1890. [back]

2. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was Walt Whitman's favorite brother. Jeff in 1867 became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and would become a nationally recognized name in civil engineering. Jeff departed St. Louis with his wife, Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman, in mid-February 1870 but spent time in Pittsburgh before rejoining his wife in Brooklyn. Jeff departed Brooklyn to return to St. Louis on February 26 (see Mattie's February 27, 1870 letter to Walt Whitman (Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 68). For more on Jeff, see "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]

3. Johnston is quoting from Whitman's "Joy, Shipmate, Joy," from the Songs of Parting cluster of poems. [back]

4. 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]

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

6. Johnston is quoting from the Bible, 2 Samuel 1:20. [back]

7. Johnston is quoting, with minor alterations, from Whitman's poem "Soon Shall the Winter's Foil Be Here.[back]

8. 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]

9. Johnston published (for private circulation) Notes of Visit to Walt Whitman, etc., in July, 1890. (Bolton: T. Brimelow & co., printers, &c.) in 1890. His notes were also published, along with a series of original photographs, as Diary Notes of A Visit to Walt Whitman and Some of His Friends, in 1890 (Manchester: The Labour Press Limited; London: The "Clarion" Office, 1898). Johnston's work was later published with James W. Wallace's accounts of Fall 1891 visits with Whitman and the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke in Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–91 (London, England: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1917). [back]

10. 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]

11. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

12. With this letter, Johnston enclosed a typescript copy of Symonds's letter thanking him for sending Notes of a Visit to Walt Whitman (1890) (The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller [New York: New York UP, 1969], 5:148–149n11). For a complete transcription of the letter, see The Letters of John Addington Symonds, Volume 3: 1885–1893, ed. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969], 530–531. [back]

13. 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]

14. 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]

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

16. 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]


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