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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 7 October 1874

 loc_tb.00740.jpg Guntersville (the Metropolis of) Marshall Co. Alabama

(Meltonsville is 10 miles North East of this village at the extreme southern point or great bend of the Tennessee river, and was never anything but a post office—Willwell Farm is 3 miles from that office—near the "lordly" and beautiful Tennessee, in a populous little valley. The home of the rude "Philosopher" who out-natures nature. Latitude 34 ½ precisely. This is a beautiful country, and the climate excellent.

Lack of culture and the love of the ideal in any sense other than the old and barbarous is the main defect. Orthodoxy flourishes withe​ the usual lack of flowers or fruit. This is the  loc_tb.00742.jpg "Sunny South" indeed. Winter here is a holiday or treat. This county is composed of mountains and their table lands about 400 feet above the valleys, and valleys sometimes regularly oblong and sometimes crooked and branching. The Tennessee dips in like a crooked arm and scoops off the North West quarter of the county as if it would steal that fraction and some sister counties to give to the state of its own name.

The white population predominates here enough to free us from the unpleasantness experienced in other parts of our state. Many candidates for offices here now. The "philosopher" too quiet and impartial to ever be a party man, thinks  loc_tb.00743.jpg that in some of the cases A ought not to have the office—because B wants it, and B ought not to have it—because A wants it, and both ought not to have it—because neither is fit for it. This is a queer letter to come from a sober, studious thoughtful man—so careful in all business matters, but I have so written it, both for information and to amuse my friend Mr. Whitman who has done me the greatest honor of my life.

The book (of Burroughs')1 and the packet of letter, poem, and picture came,2 as the result of the only approach I have ever made or expect to make to any noted man. I am delighted and grateful beyond the power of words of mine to express.  loc_tb.00744.jpg I suspect the most notable point in Burroughs' book3 is page 42 middle and only complete paragraph—about criticism——

I write by night at a relatives​ house near [illegible] and think I must send a dollar to pay for the book, and return those stamps 44 cts (or value in scrips unless; manageable)—it looks too much like you wanted to square with me for that gold dollar, which I want to represent the lifting of the veil between two "natural" and warm hearts.

Let me take the will for the deed—as to the book. Leaves of Grass ought to be worth $50 to as poor a man as I.

Please send a card before long—stating your health.

I know the style of my letters is queer, but if you had thought them absurd or insincere you would not have answered.

J. N. Johnson

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. 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]
  • 2. This letter has not been located. [back]
  • 3. 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]
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