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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 13 September 1874

 loc_tb.00727.jpg Meltonsville Alabama Mr Walt Whitman—

It has vexed me that a letter1 I lately intended for you, was ad.​ on the outside to you or "nearest friend" at Washington. The answer was (as I take it) kind and romantic or poetical enough to be from the most "electric" and beneficent poet I have ever read after. ☛ A copy of the "Graphic"2 of Nov. /73, with engraving of that worshipful face, with some writer's estimation of your works, and the publisher's remarks—this much marked with pencil "laid up, lame and unfit  loc_tb.00728.jpg for work at Camden N.J."

This I suppose that "nearest friend" or yourself intended as answer to my inquiry whether you were reduced to "distress", (pecuniary,) as the paper "Hearth and Home" about last of July hinted, by discharge from government employment.3 I thought "is it possible that this wonderful and all-deserving man's profits from his literary work will not support him in comfort?"

Also I thought if your work was too great and good for a shallow world to appreciate and begin to pay for, I should ☛  loc_tb.00730.jpg "know the reason why".

Walt! I am a poor man; and myself, wife, and six children,4 live on an income of about three hundred rarely approaching 400 dollars a year, about half made by our labor in the cotton field, and pay one fifth for state and county Taxes; also I do not believe in "immortality" except for you, was once (by inheritance) a slaveholding youthful "patriarch", carried a gun in the Rebellion,5 and was promoted for the daring courage which conscious integrity gave, to the "stretcher" service, but if you—Walt—are  loc_tb.00732.jpg about to "go down", I say "by God" you shall not without an effort on my part to make it some easier. I have written a good deal of droll, amusing rhymes—not published. But "rhymers pass away" (as I want them to do)—I think I can sell books for you—giving you all the profits—as I am a most eloquent reader, and could "canvass well. But if your need is urgent, real, and immediate, I can spare you something of the small store of capital that is helping me in  loc_tb.00733.jpg my strangely premature decline.

I am 42, and "gray as a rat", but the WAR "toughened and hardened" me, (while reducing my inherited fortune from ten to three thousand,) and I do, and appear able to do more work than when I was 20 to 30 yrs

Thank you also for "blowing more grit" in me. (I forgot to send a stamp with my former). ☛ Whatever betides, let Walt, or give some good boy the gold dollar I send, to report occasionally whether my idol still lives and how he fares. Bulletins or cards.


Walt! Are you Orthodox or Universalist? I am Materialist of late.

Born 10 miles from here, and never a traveler.

I wish you knew me. I am going to get "Burroughs'6 Notes"7 and try to know you all I can you interest me—So much grand poetry nearly kills me with the pain of delight

I almost never correspond in writing with any relative or friend, but now I am bewitched if philosophy can ever "dream" of such

John Newton Johnson Sane, cold, and calculating Need I say always abstinent? I am 13 miles from the nearest village

Post-script My family Physician8 quite lately borrowed from me, all my money except 2 10 ct scrips, 1 gold dollar, and 8 silver quarters, which I bought to pay my (small) children for special and surprising industry in picking cotton last fall.9

John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) was a colorful and eccentric self-styled philosopher from rural Alabama. There are about thirty letters from Johnson in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919 (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), but unfortunately there are no replies extant, although Whitman wrote frequently for a period of approximately fifteen years. When Johnson wrote for the first time on August 13, 1874. He informed Whitman that during the past summer he had bought Leaves of Grass and, after a momentary suspicion that the bookseller should be "hung for swindling," he discovered the mystery of Whitman's verse, and "I assure you I was soon 'cavorting' round and asserting that the $3 book was worth $50 if it could not be replaced, (Now Laugh)." He offered either to sell Whitman's poetry and turn over to him all profits or to lend him money. On October 7, 1874, after describing Guntersville, Alabama, a town near his farm from which he often mailed his letters to Whitman, he commented: "Orthodoxy flourishes with the usual lack of flowers or fruit." See also Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1915), 125–130.


  • 1. See Johnson's letter to Whitman of August 13, 1874. [back]
  • 2. The New York Daily Graphic published a number of Walt Whitman's poems and prose pieces in 1873 and 1874. In 1873, it printed "Nay, Tell Me Not To-day the Publish'd Shame" (March 5, 1873), "With All the Gifts, America" (March 6, 1873), "The Singing Thrush" (March 15, 1873; later called "Wandering at Morn"), "Spain" (March 24, 1873), "Sea Captains, Young or Old" (April 4, 1873; later called "Song for All Seas, All Ships"), "Warble for Lilac-Time" (May 12, 1873), "Halls of Gold and Lilac" (November 24, 1873), and "Silver and Salmon-Tint" (November 29, 1873). In 1874, the Daily Graphic printed "A Kiss to the Bride" (May 21, 1874), "Song of the Universal" (June 17, 1874), and "An Old Man's Thought of School" (November 3, 1874). On November 25, 1873, a picture of Whitman and a review of his work (excerpted by Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman [Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883], 209–210) occupied an entire page of the paper (as Whitman alludes to in his November 28, 1873, letter to Peter Doyle). An editorial in the same issue added biographical details, probably supplied by Whitman himself, and announced the forthcoming publication of the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass. For more on Whitman's relationship with the Daily Graphic, see Susan Belasco, "The New York Daily Graphic." [back]
  • 3. By the end of January 1872, Whitman had been transferred from his position in the Attorney General's Office to the Solicitor of the Treasurer's Office (a division of the U.S. Justice Department), where he worked as a clerk. The following year, Whitman had a paralytic stroke and was forced to take a leave of absence to recover. He returned to his position briefly, but moved to Camden, New Jersey a few months later, and petitioned for a friend to subtitute in his place. Whitman was discharged from government employment in 1874 despite his appear to President Ulysses S. Grant. For more information, see Jonathan Gill, "Treasurer's Office, Solicitor of the," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. According to the 1870 U. S. Census, John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) was a farmer living in Marshall County, Alabama, with his wife Sarah E. Johnson (1844–1907) and five of his children. Three of the children were from John Newton Johnson's first marriage to Clotilda Loveless Johnson (b. 1832). [back]
  • 5. Johnson was a Confederate soldier in the U. S. Civil War. He enlisted in Alabama in 1862 as a Private in Company H of the 4th Militia Infantry. [back]
  • 6. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. John Burroughs's Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person was first published in New York in 1867. The text was extensively revised and rewritten by Whitman. [back]
  • 8. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
  • 9. This postscript is written upside down at the top of the third page; it continues at the top of the second page. [back]
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