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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, [27 August?] 1875

 loc_tb.00772.jpg Walt Whitman— Dear friend—

[illegible]ui [illegible]gust (of a degree) with my sur[illegible]take [illegible] write what may yet be of[illegible] entertainment [illegible]ow. Tired, tired, tired of th[illegible] of eating, [illegible]king, working, and talking [illegible] commonplace [illegible] For instance—yesterday, follow[illegible] enough [illegible] to make previously plowed[illegible]d for [illegible]g and hoeing, (the first[illegible] in [illegible] months,) I went to our p[illegible] a view [illegible]writing to my son in Texas [illegible]ight [illegible] perhaps get off something to[illegible]too [illegible]te to do more than indite a [illegible] before [illegible]ie was up for departure of o[illegible] weekly mail. I concluded to come away without [illegible] anything there for next trip. Well, it being the latter half of the last day of the week, there gathered in near a dozen of our substantial and most intelligent farmers—it might be supposed there would be some communion of spirits to drive away the dullness with which I and perhaps others had been oppressed. But, but there was only some dull talk about state politics and then "thrift, thrift". What a pleasure it would have been to me if I could [illegible] dared to broach some other subject with[illegible] of at least [illegible]tting a hearing for myself fo[illegible]preciative [illegible]dience, or starting a more [illegible]moralizes [illegible]t, as our folks here say—"a [illegible] the [illegible]"—Also, when I went to "town[illegible] I [illegible]t" by the manifest supr[illegible]ks these [illegible] "thrift, thrift" rather than [illegible] for [illegible]ending to a "bugle-call" to[illegible]on of  loc_tb.00774.jpg thought [illegible]t enjoyment. (Just here I will [illegible] you[illegible] at "town".—I had on a previous visit or[illegible] of "Leaves of Grass" sent to the[illegible] postm[illegible]pose that it should be kept at the office [illegible]ntry of any literary product[illegible] have a [illegible]t an idea of its purpose, natur[illegible] value. [illegible]d been kept at his father's house. The out[illegible]lace. So as I had to pass by there [illegible] way to[illegible] in law's home (where my d[illegible] I stop[illegible]k to show to my own folks [illegible] No[illegible]father is Doctor of Medici[illegible] also D[illegible]or Cumberland Presbyterian[illegible] A ver[illegible] slight acquaintance of mine: upon[illegible] book, I think he first opened t[illegible] subject [illegible]its—anyhow, with but little start, he expressed the most sturdy avowal that he "couldnt see one bit of sense in it, and didn't believe the author knew what he had written when he was done". I therefore got down and went in to the portico or stoop where he and some company (our county tax collector, and county school superintendent &c &c) were sitting, and with a few preliminary remarks, read to them "Song at Sunset"1 [illegible] a few other lines. I stopped frequently to show [illegible] the Poetry lay in each strongest line—th[illegible] to bring all up in artistic style or at lea[illegible] who is indebted only to his "mother[illegible] artistic. Now, dear friend, good [illegible] on thoroughly understanding the sense [illegible] the emphasis rightly, then[illegible] slow [illegible] that daring which has no fear of [illegible]produces a bold, strong enunciation [illegible] there was astonishment in that  loc_tb.00775.jpg [illegible]e when trained and well-c [illegible]id out those lines about [illegible]and spirituality and goodness and [illegible] of [illegible]gs. The good old man tho, [illegible]bject [illegible]ur part of the performan[illegible]g, upon [illegible] asking, that he saw no imp[illegible]the universe, but said you didn't pro[illegible] him it [illegible]The business of Logic and "[illegible] prove [illegible], and the last was only [illegible]f things [illegible]nd parallels, likenesses [illegible]tra-[illegible]. I left him with a statement [illegible]or [illegible] your work, and the wond[illegible] change in my estimate of it[illegible] change. [illegible] I got about 3 weeks ago the two [illegible] John Burroughs'2 picture—sent a reply [illegible] 2 weeks ago. I have not been well pleased in thinking over what little I said about the picture—I fear it was in bad taste—after disclaiming belief in Phrenology and Physiognomy—to say the picture might indicate more of talent than warmth (it would be very unfortunate if it were surmised to be a supposed discovery of any "sinister" look—which it certainly was not. Please consider it all—the whole passage as proceeding from haste and "humor" which only can excuse it.

What I said about my and my [illegible]" wrecking us, was immediately occa[illegible]apparent [illegible]ect and danger of a severe [illegible]inistered [illegible]her to a woman and her [illegible]ters [illegible]t meddling in and keep [illegible]rels [illegible]little school-boys. Maybe[illegible] much.


Only because [illegible]ordinary letter would be made to[illegible] do I refer[illegible] you an article I see in a newspaper and ex[illegible] Galaxy3 about Preservation of L[illegible] The age[illegible] been thinking about telling you [illegible] you may [illegible]an octogenarian by one of those stranger [illegible] time occurs. That would give [illegible] about t[illegible]ters yet and if I can live so long maybe [illegible]d one winter with me. [illegible] I will [illegible] live with less of sickness th[illegible] ma[illegible]try—at any rate those who [illegible] so [illegible]. I live mostly by what I [illegible] L[illegible] and sorghum molasses[illegible] salt [illegible]e folks condemn salt, and [illegible] say [illegible] drinking animal". Now in [illegible] salt drinking water, I am like a horse—and I take little solid food I use (mostly cornbread and good home-made milk-and-soda biscuit) along with a very large allowance of drink such as milk, water, and a very little coffee. Use no tobacco or strong drink. It looks strange to see so many of my old mates or companions dead long ago, and myself the weakest of all still living and thriving.

Prudence [illegible]lence taking care of weakness, and over-rating the strongest[illegible] most dangerous of tastes and tempers!)[illegible] In the [illegible]I slept much, read much, and ate slowly [illegible]t different times." are you always [illegible] sleepi[illegible] always reading?—are you[illegible] always Cotton and corn are small, from [illegible] much [illegible] "season" now. Getting on well, [illegible] having [illegible] sell my 2 big cotton bales for t[illegible] year's [illegible] must sustain considerable loss [illegible] from th[illegible]. Write every day if you could [illegible] a willing [torn away] mine of June 10


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 "Song at Sunset" as it appeared in the 1872 edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
  • 2. 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]
  • 3. William Conant Church (1836–1917) established the Galaxy in 1866 with his brother Francis Pharcellus Church (1839–1906). Financial control of the Galaxy passed to Sheldon & Company in 1868, and it was absorbed by the Atlantic Monthly in 1878. For a time, the Churches considered Whitman a regular contributor, printing two of his essays that later made up a significant portion of Democratic Vistas (1871) and several of his poems, including" A Carol of Harvest for 1867," "Brother of All, With Generous Hand," "Warble for Lilac-Time," and "O Star of France." For more on Whitman's relationship with the Galaxy, see Susan Belasco, "Whitman's Poems in Periodicals—The Galaxy." [back]
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