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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 9 November 1875

 loc_tb.00777.jpg Walt Whitman—

Continued good-will well–supported by a constantly enlarging sense of your great merit as a writer fitted to both please and instruct, leads me to write this after quite a spell of silence. I can make it, tho'​ , only a sorry sort of an Appendix to the series of letters I was sending you through the first half and seventh month of the year. The intention or one purpose of these letters being to divert or entertain you with a phase of life that probably would not fail to be new to you. As I have sometimes said during many years past, it is doubtful whether any one could imagine a human character so strange but that the wide world could furnish one specimen to fill its requirements—so, on the other hand, it is altogether possible for one individual to exist considerably or markedly different from all who can have come under the observation of any one man. And this is a good answer to those fools who say there cannot be so much as one perfectly honest man on earth. I have said I was fully convinced there are men who would not yield their integrity for an endless life and as much gold as half the bulk of the earth with the other half to spend it on at present value—nor would they accept the throne and prerogatives of God on such condition (of being unjust).

In your first letter (more than a year ago) you said you would "much, much" like to "look in upon" me—well, you have looked in upon a real, live, "good enough" and also (by jingo!) not too good a man—a sincere, enthusiastic admirerer, and yet in such told and untold particulars as we might differ about, a man "sufficient for himself" and whom laws, theories, conventions" and even other Philosophers and Poets shall not "master"—And so I ask you, did I not conduct my part of that correspondence rightly? For, naturally one whose  loc_tb.00778.jpg acquaintance should be sought by another man would wish to know—what does he want? where is he? and what is he? This is enough.

(My last before this were July 18 and Aug 141

I will relieve you of any fears that I shall (of myself) be wanting to write and be written to so frequently hereafter—when I am looking for anything from you it creates a "fiendish expectation" that troubles me on account of the long way to and from the Post Office 3½ X 2 = 7 miles—ordinary mail matter I generally wait for till [illegible]t season or some ungulates pass to and fro. If you are publishing anything new I would like to have it if you can credit me for it till I can send pay.

(Your last a card Aug 13)2

The autumn or October and November season, usually by far the loveliest of all the seasons here, has been much trespassed upon by spells of cloudy and rainy weather like our common winter weather—beyond any precedent. The sharp frosts just before and about Oct 15, coming before the forest foliage had matured enough to drop spontaneously, our superabundance of wildwood was clad two weeks ago with unusual, surpassing splendor and sweetness, but now, much of the glory is gone. Perhaps to the eye of a Poet and true Philosopher the ripe cotton ball is beautiful as the rose—then shouldn't the cotton field be a rose-garden without thorns? ☛ Put me to kneeling, crawling, sitting, squatting among the cotton rows, fingers busy with the beautiful and useful, and thoughts flying undisturbedly over all the earth in search of congenialities and reminiscences and then I am a never so happy diminutive Philosopher and voiceless Poet. Of all work I have always liked cotton-picking the best. And now let this bit of gossip be a respectful and kind leave taking or a part of something to be continued at long intervals as may suit you best.

Bless you Walt! 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. Johnson is referring to his letter of July 18, 1875. A letter dated August 14, 1875 has not yet been located. [back]
  • 2. This postal card has not been located. [back]
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