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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 7 February 1876

 loc_tb.00790.jpg Walt Whitman—

Received your card of Dec 122 at proper time I see a remarkably favorable notice of your friend Conway3 by a female correspondent of a Nashville paper. Why not tell me of your pleasure from his visit &c &c? I have been thinking a long time about sending you some scraps of printed matter—among them some written by a Dr (M.D.) F.O. Ticknor of (Columbus) Georgia.4 He was a poetical or at least fanciful writer in both verse and prose form fully as much so in prose as in verse. He was a brisk or piquant and pleasing scribbler yet an extremist and decidedly a failure as a philosopher. He died a year or so ago. I have not read much of what he wrote after the beginning of the war. (After getting from you John Burroughs'5 picture, I sent him in latter part of June '75 a short note and some scraps of Ticknor's fanciful writing about fruit-culture—directed to Esopus New York, his letter to you being thus Esopus West Park NY found ano West Park in P.O. Directory

I got no notice of its receipt by him, which was quite a disappointment, as I would have been glad for him to have Ticknor's pieces.

I have wanted you to see a notice in the N.Y. Weekly Sun of Dec 8 last of Joaquin Millers​ 6 last volume—I dont​ doubt it was just—from reading his first volume and scraps occasionally, I call him ☛ a Poet "by the skin of his teeth"—have done so for near two years—he writes some pretty passages.

Have you ever read Weems' Life of Washington?7—written for children but really best suited for "pert" men—I have bragged on it for twenty years.

 loc_tb.00791.jpg (Uncle Walt! oo​ mus'​ talk—oo​ mus'​ not be tonguetied)

You have doubtless read so much about everything that I would like an opportunity to ask you a question or more on Intellectual or Moral Philosophy. Do all writers who deny Free Will and yet wish to find room for blame, make the same ridiculous blunder that is made by Abercrombie8 in his Int. Phil. for Schools? he says we may blame a man to-day (tho'​ not free) because in time past (when feeling himself free ☛ tho'​ not so ☚) he did wrong repeatedly and brought himself to be of such a character that right motives can't have their proper effect. Absurd, Absurd, &c &c "All is truth without exception".9

About ten months ago a Presiding Elder10 of the Methodist church, after "talking around the edges" (as I called it) of the great question (Religion), and being much surprised and a little frightened (doubtless) by the quiet strength and yet charitable tenderness of the philosopher, admitted the latter was perfectly sane, and "yet there must be a screw loose somewhere. Walt! do you think there is "a screw loose somewhere" in all advocates of Orthodoxy? I know there is with many, and it is thus—their conceit enables them to hope they will escape "the wrath to come" and with that weak moral sense that will "always praise the bridge that passes me over safely," they are satisfied. If you encourage me to write, and say you will sometimes write to me I will buy me some pens—one of my curious ways I dont​ write much to anybody but you ("What! bestow all thy tediousness on me?")

JNJ  loc_tb.00789.jpg  loc.01850.002_large.jpg

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 is addressed: Walt Whitman | 431 Stevens St | Cor West | Camden | New Jersey. The return address is: Meltonsville Alabama | February 8 1876. [back]
  • 2. This postal card has not been located. [back]
  • 3. Moncure Daniel Conway (1832–1907) was an American abolitionist, minister, and frequent correspondent with Walt Whitman. Conway often acted as Whitman's agent and occasional public relations man in England. For more on Conway, see Philip W. Leon, "Conway, Moncure Daniel (1832–1907)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. Dr. Francis Orrey Ticknor (1822–1874) was born in Georgia and studied medicine in New York and Philadelphia. He then returned to Columbus, Georgia, where he and his family lived on a farm. Ticknor was a poet and a successful horticulturist, as well as a musician and draftsman. A collection of his poems was published in 1879 (Southern Writers: Selections in Prose and Verse, ed. W. P. Trent, [London: Macmillan & Co., 1914], 343). [back]
  • 5. 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]
  • 6. Joaquin Miller was the pen name of Cincinnatus Heine Miller (1837–1913), an American poet nicknamed "Byron of the Rockies" and "Poet of the Sierras." In 1871, the Westminster Review described Miller as "leaving out the coarseness which marked Walt Whitman's poetry" (297). In an entry in his journal dated August 1, 1871, the naturalist John Burroughs recorded Whitman's fondness for Miller's poetry; see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931), 60. Whitman met Miller for the first time in 1872; he wrote of a visit with Miller in a July 19, 1872, letter to his former publisher and fellow clerk Charles W. Eldridge. [back]
  • 7. Mason Locke Weems (1759–1825) was an American minister and writer. His biography The Life of Washington relayed several apocryphal stories about George Washington and was meant to be a moralist tract for young readers. [back]
  • 8. Johnson is likely referring to Philosophy of Moral Feelings, a book by Scottish physician and philosopher John Abercrombie (1780–1844). The book was published in many editions in the U.S. and England after its first appearance in 1833, including editions explicitly for schoolroom use. [back]
  • 9. Johnson here quotes from Whitman's poem "All is Truth." [back]
  • 10. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
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