Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Dr. John Johnston, 18 November 1890

Date: November 18, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.08252

Source: Henry S. Saunders Collection of Walt Whitman Papers, 1899–1913, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 5:118–119. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Ryan Furlong, Stephanie Blalock, and Amanda J. Axley




Camden NJ US America1
Nov: 18 '90.

Y'rs & J W W[allace]'s2 letters rec'd3 & welcomed—I am here yet & much the same way—Still the grip & the bladder trouble—am writing a little—just sent off a little thanksgiving poemet for NY paper (ordered)4—the Ing[ersoll]5 lecture is to be printed in book6 & I will send you one—H Traubel7 here daily & invaluable & kind—hear f'm Dr B[ucke]8

affectionate regards to you & Wallace & all—
Walt Whitman


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: Dr Johnston | 54 Manchester Road | Bolton Lancashire | England. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Nov 19 | 6 AM | 90. [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. It is uncertain which letters are being referred to here. [back]

4. To Julius Chambers (1850–1920), managing editor of the New York World, Whitman sent a piece entitled "Walt Whitman's Thanksgiving," which appeared in the paper on November 23 with this preface: "From out of buoyant spirits, fine weather and brightest sunshine (Nov: 18 '90) I send hearty salutations in advance to The World readers, staff, and printers—Why not say, all the Commonwealth—aye, the orb itself, all hands? Carlyle said the truest poetry was impell'd by gratitude, adoration, the richness of love, thanksgiving (it is a deep criticism). I sometimes wonder whether this native festa of ours is not to be kicked out of all the celebration days of our New World, and spread to all our confines, and become our distinctive day, autochthonous, representative of our whole Nationality. Though old and helplessly paralyzed, I am among you in New York more than you think; and, while I cannot send you anything particularly new, I re-dedicate to you all, as follows, one of my late personal utterances. . . ." Following this preface, "Thanks in Old Age" was printed in its entirety. The poet was paid $10 on November 23 (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]

5. 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 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" (Horace 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]

6. On October 21, 1890, at Horticultural Hall in Philadelphia, Robert Ingersoll delivered a lecture in honor of Walt Whitman titled Liberty in Literature. Testimonial to Walt Whitman. Whitman recorded in his Commonplace Book that the lecture was "a noble, (very eulogistic to WW & L of G) eloquent speech, well responded to by the audience," and the speech itself was published in New York by the Truth Seeker Company in 1890 (Whitman's Commonplace Book [Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]). [back]

7. 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]

8. 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]


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