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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, [18 July] 1875

 loc_tb.00764.jpg Walt Whitman—Dear Friend!

I begin this letter at 11 [illegible] A.M. Sunday July 18—sitting in the extra[illegible]d, airy hall or open sitting room common to the [illegible]ed log buildings which form so common a style of residences of the moderately "well-off" Southerners—especially of my section, where saw-mills have not been so plentiful as to favor the building frame houses, and most efforts in brick-burning have succeeded badly—producing a very sorry article. (I have not determined, before sitting down, when I will finish this and send it on.) The sun is shining bright. This is a tolerably flat level place—convenient for getting about. I [illegible]south eastward through an orchard of low top[illegible] Apple and [illegible]trees. Three hundred yards from [illegible] house, runs north eastwardly and south westwardly, a ridge, or line of more or less closely joined knobs, hills, or short transverse ridges about 150 feet high. The ridge runs parallel with the big river and [illegible]ally divides our valley into a sandstone sub valley nex[illegible] broad but low Sand mountain; and a sub valley [illegible] lime land next the river. Looking [illegible]h [illegible]st[illegible]a new [illegible]r approaching [illegible] mostly stopped [illegible]erge[illegible]d a[illegible]er growth [illegible] young hickories are no vi[illegible] suggestion of the presence of the great river 1 ½ miles [illegible] whose [illegible]lity or grandeur would [illegible] seriously passed [illegible] 5 mile long isl[illegible] [illegible]ing low[illegible] bil[illegible]except tillers [illegible] p[illegible]ts; divide the[illegible] and gives only about [illegible]hird [illegible]its volume to[illegible] share. So, while our ho[illegible] is [illegible]ch if at all injured by malaria  loc_tb.00766.jpg and [illegible]y convenient, and is as I call it mighty handy to bread and meat", we yet have not dire [illegible] from the house any very lively outlook But a [illegible] minutes travel brings us to parts even in the level [illegible] from which the prospects have a quiet or gentle loveliness. A mountain range north of the river coming right in front of me for two or three miles close to the river and giving back a little right and left presents with its top and side green or blue (according to season) a pleasing boundary to the landscape. In the other sub-valley (my term) the big, broad mountain and gentle undulations of the valley itself present varying pleasing or soothing scenes. Yet you know mountains whose bigg[illegible]ast might be an elevation of only [illegible] feet cant​ [illegible]a striking or awe-inspiring appearance to any landscape. Most people here live in log houses—[illegible]a very few years back, we have partly used wooden and earthen chimneys, as good stone (that we knew to be such) was not very plentiful about the surface, and nobody undertook to mine for it and then use several f[illegible]in brickmaking, Later though have been trying [illegible]wn sandstone [illegible] i[illegible] I have [illegible]then out stone [illegible]–an[illegible]eely dress [illegible]f[illegible] a[illegible] put up. So you[illegible]he [illegible]e of q[illegible] man [illegible] with no [illegible] but a small but zealous) [illegible] one [illegible] I [illegible]affords [illegible] so[illegible]es of the [illegible]dge [illegible]h [illegible]milk, fruit, and poi[illegible] [illegible] away, (an[illegible]d [illegible] how [illegible], many, [illegible]ays, and how mu[illegible]d labor. beca[illegible]e u[illegible]ed). Indeed, I love to [illegible] about a [illegible] in [illegible] for no  loc_tb.00767.jpg purpose [illegible] [illegible]k up [illegible]ine knots [illegible]et them [illegible] is to a wagon wch [illegible] breathe the[illegible], how delicious [illegible]. This valley of two [illegible] valleys is about 10 mi long [illegible] miles wide—contains perhaps 150 grown men The Negroes are mostly in two clusters about two or three miles northeast and southwest of my home—they [illegible] quiet and well behaved—perhaps the grown males of the negroes would number 30 or 40. Our people are very plain or Democratic in ways—no aristocracy—little crime—the religious part are old orthodox Baptists and Methodists. Most of our better educated people are inclined to skepticism, but don't dispute much with the other class so far as I know. (All the above I have written because your letter of July 131 seems [illegible] for such sketches. I cant​ get a good pen point. It would take something like a book to deal with all the subjects you open for me.)

I had one only brother two years older2—in a former letter3 I said when he was a boy or very young man he was "rude and repellent"—that only meant his [illegible]ly fault was a teasing or jeering provoking way that made me fear often [illegible]hat h[illegible] affection was unsteady and unreliable. He died of sickness 13 years ago—Major in the Confederate Army. He lived and died at the old homestead 10 South [illegible]f [illegible] and his family still [illegible] in good circumstances [illegible] big [illegible] with no [illegible] isolates me [illegible] them very much. My mother4 was married at 26 and died [illegible] 29, the day I was born—she [illegible] of a family of[illegible]ters from Virginia—her mother Motley5—they were wea[illegible] old families on both [illegible] but her father "raced himself poor—[illegible]e of her [illegible]us was a Morehead, an old-time [illegible] of North Carolina.6  loc_tb.00768.jpg [illegible] was raised [illegible] manhood about [illegible]en miles from Baltimore/Ma7 [illegible]ear—his father8 was quite [illegible] poor man describe [illegible]me by an acquaintance last year [illegible]ng in his old age—near 10[illegible]as tho not religious yet [illegible]ly one of the most perfect men that ever lived—a great hunter—a man of large frame and immense strength—a remarkable pugilist in his young days—they moved to upper East Tennessee—"papa" got a little education—went to building flat and "keel" boats, and traded to Nashville and New Orleans, and dealt as a settled merchant at various points in East Tennessee and North Alabama—made a small little fortune for those times, yet paradoxically was considered rarely honest, candid, liberal—a man of immense vim[illegible]lly settled high up on a mountain side with a most magnificent proud outlook—adorned his home with buildings, and orchards of fruit trees and plants (they came quickly into bearingeg in that day of rich fresh soil). His home was somewhat isolated—probably he lived among his slaves and a few "retainers" of whit[illegible] much like a Scottish Chieftain—yet he was not righteous nor a conformist tho transmitting to his heirs [illegible]legacy his [illegible]t good [illegible]se, generosity, and spirit. [illegible] for [illegible]time,).

Little Walt9 is perhaps "small" only a[illegible] lacks the draw[illegible]ous flesh has [illegible] sire [illegible]ough—started out as a reformer rather [illegible]—a week after [illegible] he commenced drawing [illegible] moved himself into a Ea[illegible] room (20[illegible]t) and [illegible] stopped and overtur[illegible] a jug of whiskey with which I was only "treating [illegible] neighbors and workmen at threshing time. I shall [illegible] slap him before [illegible]k got[illegible].

J.N.J.  loc_tb.00769.jpg Blessed are old bachelors. Postscript—Page 1

Did you ever have to pay [illegible] postage because of a foolscap sheet being too [illegible]maybe it is.

Monday morning [illegible] or could get some rain for the wheat [illegible]her crops—

The largest [illegible]nt from [illegible] the smallest [illegible] means. I am glad you could not[illegible] slowly I came to understand your writing[illegible]a whole—knowing it myself, I am not [illegible] so vain a person as you might suppose—at first I saw the beauty and goodness of[illegible] but not the beauty and goodness of the whole [illegible] it seemed like there must be [illegible]unnecessary matter—I see now you[illegible]et finds each item of the Universe an [illegible]part. Was not the fact almost clearly stated[illegible]Burroughs?10 ☛ Great is (not hard, fatiguing study but) the long persistent scanning which indescribable, impalpable beauty commands.

In that "Post" paper you sent me, I saw you contemplated a possible both writing and speaking for America hereafter. "I second the motion". Suppose you "lecture"! You will draw audiences—you can [illegible] that disposition to give away all you[illegible]—you can travel, see more of the world, see [illegible]me and my baby, "publish" yourself [illegible]our beliefs) through your own personal[illegible]ouldn't I like to introduce you to a [illegible] audience [illegible] in a more Judicious and [illegible] than you  loc_tb.00770.jpg Postscript—Page two or any one else would look for? But go ahead and do as you think best.

Maybe I ought not to send these but they [illegible] not [illegible]

Maybe I am too easy about educating childrenit seems to me that spelling and reading [illegible]all that a young person should be compelled to learn—perhaps a little Arithmetic—as for the rest, "wisdom can not be passed from [illegible]ving it to one not having it." All knowledge[illegible] to him who reads well.

(Mrs. Philosopher11 39½ years old—exceedingly neat in p[illegible] as a housekeeper—looked to[illegible] neighborhood for help in "cutt[illegible] contriving"—quick-witted but will not reflect, will not read one page o[illegible] book or anything in ten years, (consequently [illegible], and must be everlastingly vis[illegible] about—one, two, or three miles—day or night—let old "papa" take care of house, housework, babies, chickens, cows &c—never "pouts" half a day, always mixing liveliness, crossness, rude speech, kind speech, industry, laziness, selfishness, unmotherliness (of the grossest), motherliness, a[illegible]ng through the same day, day after day. No looking to the future to fret, or [illegible] and act by steady principles. A good litt[illegible], motherless, (but not brotherless or sist[illegible]—Just to give one's children the strong [illegible]n to work for an honest living [illegible] Was ever[illegible] Philosopher (so charmed and yet so [illegible]ized? And again was there ever so ho[illegible]st a (practical) Philosoph[illegible]

I have thought sometimes it would be a consolation if I could call this willful, all-overbearing woman a fool but I can't have even that short-lived comfort. Wo​ is me.

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. This letter has not been located. [back]
  • 2. Johnson is referring to his older brother Bartley C. Johnson (1830–1862), also a farmer in Marshall County, Alabama. [back]
  • 3. See Johnson's letter to Whitman of May 10, 1875. [back]
  • 4. John Newton Johnson was the son of Mary Carter Johnson (1803–1832) and Joshua Johnson (1773–1841). [back]
  • 5. Mary Carter Johnson (1803–1832)—the mother of John Newton Johnson—was the daughter of Amy Motley Carter (1770–1853) and James Carter (1774–1845) of Virginia. [back]
  • 6. Johnson is referring to the family of his maternal grandmother, Amy Motley Carter (1770–1853). Mary Carter Johnson (1803–1832)—the mother of John Newton Johnson—was the daughter of Amy Motley Carter and James Carter (1774–1845), of Virginia. Amy's sister—John Newton Johnson's great-aunt—was Obedience Motley Morehead (1768–1863). Obedience was married to John Morehead (1760–1832), and they were the parents of John Motley Morehead (1796–1866), who served as the twenty-ninth governor of North Carolina. Johnson is, therefore, explaining his mother's connection to the well-known Morehead family in North Carolina. [back]
  • 7. Johnson is referring to his father, Joshua Johnson (1773–1841), who was born and raised in Maryland. [back]
  • 8. Johnson is referring to his paternal grandfather, who may have been Philip Johnson (ca. 1737). [back]
  • 9. Walt Whitman Johnson (1874–1935) was one of the children of John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) and his second wife, Sarah Evergreen Parker (1846–1907). [back]
  • 10. 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]
  • 11. Johnson is referring to Sarah Evergreen Parker Johnson (1846–1907), his second wife. [back]
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