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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 1875

 loc_tb.00779.jpg Send a [illegible] Walt Whitman [illegible] Dearfriend

[illegible]t of this letter, I wish you to know that tho' raised in what might fairly be called a backwoods country, and with no means naturally at hand to learn the etiquette of "society", I yet fully understand the nature of my acquaintance with you—it is a sort of "literary" acquaintance [illegible] I would not feel free [illegible] into [illegible] reco[illegible] friend [illegible] takes [illegible] sheet of [illegible] no r[illegible] throughout the [illegible], I don't present to [illegible] gentlemanly to present one's self with some boldness in that way. The strongest of my motives all along has been to give you pleasure and be paying back for what I have received. Yet I have also thought of a good moral effect on my family from their seeing their [illegible]," win[illegible]ognition from [illegible]e in my [illegible]k of [illegible] yet about [illegible] might [illegible]a[illegible] insane or a drunk man. And I then doubted whether you could admit the possibility of such conditions producing such sanely insane writing.

(P.S. I know you must think there has been a "level-headed" theory to my life.)


Now [illegible] occasionally that you still live—for the Scripture says "the dead know not anything, nor is there any more a reward for them &c &c.1 A mere Postal card can tell me that. But if you get tired of writing that sort of letters only, I will tell you what more to write of. First tell me of some of the things that make you happy, or at least alleviate your distressed condition. Dont​ you wish to tell something about the Centennial [illegible] expect [illegible] of the [illegible] John Burroughs2 [illegible] is it [illegible] thi[illegible] seem to be [illegible]. Are all the good things of life dead with you are you now only enduring life? Please forgive me if I be now impertinent—I have not been so in asking questions before, and I cant​ compel you to answer.

Your card of July 23 acknowledged my letter of June 27, but didn't mention my letters of June 10 or 124—I like to know [illegible] get [illegible] from me, in [illegible] ground [illegible] of what [illegible] correspondence [illegible] not to write [illegible] questions [illegible] with [illegible], because while my original and unprompted ideas would necessarily in most cases be only a repetition  loc_tb.00782.jpg of what others [illegible]ght [illegible] long ago, on th[illegible]and [illegible] [illegible] past civilization and mastering it". Therefore I must not be in a hurry to commence on such things and be giving you my "meagre" thoughts.

I think what will please you best, will be for me to write about myself, my circumstances, my practical philosophy, my mother, father,5 and others [illegible] Yet I [illegible] not be[illegible] ma[illegible] But as for [illegible] eccent[illegible] so free [illegible] tricity with me. My eccentricity lies in my adherence to all Nature and my own nature and following the straight path of good practical common sense in such a way as most people are not capable of. You and I, you and I "fly the flight of the fluid and swallowing soul,6 and our [illegible] before [illegible] of [illegible] underst[illegible] illustr[illegible]k wiser for [illegible] fool folks [illegible] one in this way—while I am not at all [illegible] or contentious, and seldom have an enemy, there is yet in my nature (which I can't help) so much of the principle of destructiveness or mortal revenge that I am constantly  loc_tb.00783.jpg fe[illegible] put upon me the fatal [illegible] and very injurious provocation. Also (so much the worse for me) I have always had a leaning towards suicide as a relief in case of great trouble—Walt! can you require absolutely of me as a condition of friendship that I shall change the deepest grounded elements of my nature? "Can the leopard change his spots, or the Ethiopian his skin?"7

I think [illegible] something [illegible]ery much content you with a sketch [illegible] natural philosopher, [illegible] was mar[illegible] together 3 yrs. [illegible]bined in th[illegible] all) would be quite a [illegible]—but [illegible] I was only 8—to be his son has been a sort of patent of nobility here if I can judge rightly of appearances.—

I have got along mighty well with my crop, and hindered the boys from school very little so far—they stand at the head of their classes—by divine right.

Little Walt at the age of 7 months & 20 days commenced very suddenly to crawl over the floor in "bully" style [illegible] 3 days ago—[illegible] Nov 18 1874[illegible], and [illegible] skinned) child [illegible] and [illegible] to improve my [illegible] this summer after "laying by" the crop. What pleases me most is that you and I seem to be agreed that what America and the world need is to have not saints or angels but merely good enough people and allowing some difference in directions of action.


Send [illegible]8

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 paraphrasing a passage from the Bible; see Ecclesiastes, Chapter 9, Verse 5. [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. This postal card has not been located. [back]
  • 4. These letters have not been located. [back]
  • 5. John Newton Johnson was the son of Joshua Johnson (1773–1841) and Mary Carter Johnson (1803–1832). [back]
  • 6. Johnson is quoting a line from Whitman's poem "Song of Myself." [back]
  • 7. Johnson is referencing the Bible; see Jeremiah, Chapter 13, Verse 23. [back]
  • 8. Johnson has written a postscript at the top of the first page of this letter. Only the first word, "Send," is legible. [back]
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