Skip to main content

John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 26 April 1875

 loc_tb.00754.jpg Walt Whitman

It is sometimes very hard to determine [illegible] one ought or ought not to do or say or [illegible] I feel it rather proper or necessary for me to [illegible] write you a letter now and do the best I can. Along with the parcel of papers which you sent me after getting my baby's letter1 I got the picture and the double column bill previously sent me in the New Republic's regular issue (that is the matter of it) about Foreign Critics on an American Poet. The last paragraph speaks of "indigence", and I now write because of that. Let me guess why you gave authority to that statement—I think it rather probable that you did so as a sort of explanation of the reason or a hint of the fact that [illegible] not able to offer the little Walt [illegible] present or keepsake as would be suited [illegible] dignity or exalted worth the part [illegible] that light I could be[illegible] of your [illegible] wish you were too poor to raise [illegible] pay postage even on your paper If you [illegible] know me well, one of the [illegible]  loc_tb.00756.jpg [illegible] would be a remarkable [illegible], or [illegible] [illegible]sing of riches, show, dress, or [illegible] not described absolutely by good sense or [illegible] kindness.

Leaving off that supposition, it might be taken that you wanted me to post the bill as a sort of advertisement of your books. (When I was at "town" (Guntersville) two weeks ago, I sent money to Butts & Co.2 for a copy of Leaves of Grass to pass around among the folks there as a specimen—hoping, yet scarcely expecting to do much in behalf of increased sales of the same—

The third supposition must naturally be that my real good-will is now tested. I send a bill of money which is yours and you shall have a good deal more if you positively need it. I have yet on hand two big bales of my cotton crop intended for spending money for the [illegible]—sold the other of my crop (three more big [illegible]) on one [illegible] credit to get interest. Friend! [illegible] neither rich nor "dog poor"—I am rich in content[illegible] a good farm, and some[illegible] of dollars [illegible] hands of relatives and friends [illegible] they will [illegible] if I ever get to producing [illegible] to live on, [illegible]self, wife, and little ones [illegible] horse"  loc_tb.00757.jpg farm [illegible] money to pay taxes and [illegible] our [illegible] our tenants make for us all [illegible] grain [illegible] we lack only a little of being self-supporting [illegible] and need draw but lightly on our contingent fund, and when the crowd of athletic gymnastic boys shall grow a little larger I hope to clear up more land and "make things happen"—Now, I can see clearly (as I think) that friendship with or assistance to Walt Whitman, if he needs, is about the best bid that any common man can make for immortality for himself and pleasure to his posterity—if intellectual retrogression of mankind is ahead of us it will not be.

If the first supposition is correct, or the bill was only accidentally put in the package of papers & [illegible] us do this way—clearly you are not rich and I am not poor; to hurt—you have [illegible] sending me papers &c requesting an [illegible] stages—if you have means enough [illegible] or through kindness of immensely [illegible] friends or relatives) to live as well as you [illegible] if you are content to [illegible]  loc_tb.00758.jpg [illegible] by a continuance of past [illegible] I would [illegible] to have you use the money [illegible] books, magazines or papers such as you [illegible] like to read most and afterwards send to me. I don't care for scientific works (except new works about mental or moral Philosophy)—I don't want political works, nor books of Poetry—I have not been such an enthusiast about Poetry as you might think, except that I have been almost insane about yours because you have so well expressed "my sentiments exactly" (However, you don't convert me to "immortality"—I have been through everything except revival religion or positive "knowledge of God") Walt! I think Nature made me for a "Philosopher" and (therefore skeptic", but circumstances have made me [illegible] and [illegible] long time a believer in [illegible] of one sort or other. (Please don't [illegible] other [illegible]hunter come down [illegible] my dilapidated dwelling [illegible])

John Newton Johnson [illegible] Ala

[illegible] for the past,3 a rude but strong expression [illegible] your works have [illegible] possible desire to say "bully boy" [illegible] know that you heard me!! I think [illegible] myself hereafter by [illegible] Book always away from home I think I would like to read [illegible] Life—have you seen it?—[illegible] about [illegible] health and continuance of [illegible]

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. See Johnson's letter to Whitman of April 3, 1875. [back]
  • 2. Asa K. Butts was a New York bookseller who went bankrupt in 1874. In the mid-1870s, Butts tried to help Whitman procure legal counsel during Whitman's difficulties with book agents who allegedly embezzled from him. [back]
  • 3. Johnson wrote this postscript in the top margin, beginning on the second page of the letter, and concluding on the fourth page. [back]
Back to top