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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 7 November 1874

 loc_tb.00745.jpg Guntersville, Ala Mr. Walt Whitman—Dear Sir:

I have not been so [illegible] assume to [illegible] continued [illegible] have [illegible] to neglect [illegible] same lest you might doubt whether there was a failure in transmission. Also it appears to me that I have excited your affection or curiosity, and that there is in your present situation a tedium or sameness which my overtures have broken in upon agreeably.

At any rate my writing can't hurt you unless I write foolishly and lessen your pleasure in my warm appreciation.

I got your card and the stack of papers [illegible] (These are [illegible] had to [illegible] card [illegible] ar[illegible] nor had thrust [illegible] understand the Northern view of the War and things connected, I have been, and remain quietly, and moderately, but firmly for Dixie, through good and evil report.1 Was undecided only about the  loc_tb.00746.jpg expediency and necessity of separation. Precisely ancestral then. Still Walt, he assured [illegible] that [illegible] causes [illegible] with high [illegible] an [illegible] Walt, I never in my life sought or would have an office except such as the law forces on citizens. The war was a grand, poetic panorama to me. I tried to look at it even among the greatest dangers and hardships, like Macaulay2 says—an English statesman (Viscount Halifax)3 looked at or bore with events of his time—rather as a Historian than as a participant. ☛ Your folks nearly starved me to death at Chicago during the last ten months. Let the war pass away, [illegible] us to [illegible] of fools [illegible] and place [illegible] not quarrel with my great friend.

I have thought at various times for weeks, of sending you a copy of an Editorial of the Charleston Mercury(?) when South Carolina seceded. I cut it out of an Alabama paper  loc_tb.00747.jpg and pasted in the back of Grimshaw's (School) History [illegible] U.S. [illegible] lution [illegible] times, [illegible]ing that [illegible] blow, bugles, blow".

To satisfy possible curiosity—a personal sketch. Tall (as 5 ft 11 in), light built, weak in physique (if not otherwise,) slightly stooping or round shouldered, roman or hooked nose, deep set dark greenish yellow eyes high and broad round symmetrical forehead, high at conscientiousness and firmness, short extremely short upper lip full cheek bones, gray beard and hair, age 42.

History. Mother died the same day I was born—father eight years afterwards4 (in a fit)—one [illegible] raised [illegible] the [illegible] member [illegible] competitors [illegible] the county—was promised the Presidency (like other fast boys)—declined it—chose to be half of a Cincinnatus.5

Chose to be an easy going farmer and "Champion of Nature."

Finis [illegible] JNJ  loc_tb.00748.jpg

[illegible] Must ride back a second 13 miles of rough road before I sleep Ah I dread it

Wish I knew if you are surrounded by many loving relatives and friends and all the comforts needed.

[illegible]This is in great and compulsory haste

Cards are as long replies as I presume to ask6

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 was forty-two, "gray as a rat," as he would say in another letter from September 13, 1874: a former Rebel soldier with an income between $300 and $400 annually, though before the war he had been "a slaveholding youthful 'patriarch.'" He informed Whitman in the August 13, 1874, letter 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. 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]
  • 2. Johnson is likely referring to British historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), who from 1839–1841 served as Secretary at War of Great Britain and from 1846–1848 served as Paymaster General of the United Kingdom. Macaulay was well known for his book The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, first published in two volumes in 1848. [back]
  • 3. Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax (1800–1885) was a British statesman who served in Parliament and in many positions in the British government, including as Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, Secretary of State for India, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. [back]
  • 4. John Newton Johnson was the son of Joshua Johnson (1773–1841) and Mary Carter Johnson (1803–1832). [back]
  • 5. Johnson is referring to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman stateman and military leader in the early Roman Republic. Cincinnatus was later known for his devotion to the republic and his civic virtue. [back]
  • 6. Johnson wrote this postscript at the top of the first page of the letter, above the date. [back]
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