Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Dr. John Johnston, 6–7 February 1892

Date: February 6–7, 1892

Whitman Archive ID: loc.08455

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), 5:275–276. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Cristin Noonan, Amanda J. Axley, Erel Michaelis, and Stephanie Blalock

fac-simile f'm America Feb. 6 18921
Camden N J—U S America2
Feb.6 '92

Well I must send you all dear fellows a word from my own hand—propp'd up in bed, deadly weak yet but the spark seems to glimmer yet3—the doctors & nurses & N Y friends as faithful as ever—Here is the adv.4 of the '92 edn.5 Dr Bucke6 is well & hard at work—Col. Ingersoll7 has been here, sent a basket of champagne. All are good—physical conditions &c. are not so bad as you might suppose, only my suffering[s] much of the time are fearful—Again I repeat my thanks to you & cheery British friends may be last—my right arm giving out—

Walt Whitman

Feb 7 Same cond'n cont'd—More & more it comes to the fore that the only theory worthy our modern times for g't literature, politics & sociology must combine all the bulk people of all lands, the women not forgetting—But the mustard plaster on my side is stinging & I must stop—Good bye to all—


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. Whitman wrote this message, which he knew would be his last, and asked Horace Traubel and Thomas Harned to have it lithographed with the facsimiles sent to his close friends, including Dr. Richard Bucke, William Sloane Kennedy, John Burroughs, and the Bolton College group. This particular one was to Dr. Johnston. [back]

2. This letter is addressed: Dr Johnston | 54 Manchester R'd | Bolton Lancashire | England. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Feb 7 | 5 PM | 92. [back]

3. On December 17, 1891, Whitman had come down with a chill and was suffering from congestion in his right lung. Although the poet's condition did improve in January 1892, he would never recover. He was confined to his bed, and his physicians, Dr. Daniel Longaker of Philadelphia and Dr. Alexander McAlister of Camden, provided care during his final illness. Whitman died on March 26, 1892. [back]

4. The advertisement expressed Whitman's final words on his books: "Walt Whitman wishes respectfully to notify the public that the book LEAVES OF GRASS, which he has been working on at great intervals and partially issued for the past thirty-five or forty years, is now completed, so to call it, and he would like this new 1892 edition to absolutely supersede all previous ones. Faulty as it is, he decides it as by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance." [back]

5. The 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass was copyrighted in 1891 and published by Phildelphia publisher David McKay in 1892. This volume, often referred to as the "deathbed" edition, reprints, with minor revisions, the 1881 text from the plates of Boston publisher James R. Osgood. Whitman also includes his two annexes in the book. The first annex, called "Sands at Seventy," consisted of sixty-five poems that had originally appeared in November Boughs (1888); while the second, "Good-Bye my Fancy," was a collection of thirty-one short poems taken from the gathering of prose and poetry published under that title by McKay in 1891, along with a prose "Preface Note to 2d Annex." Whitman concluded the 1891–92 volume with his prose essay "A Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads," which had originally appeared in November Boughs. For more information on this volume of Leaves, see R.W. French, "Leaves of Grass, 1891–1892, Deathbed Edition," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. 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]

7. 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]


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