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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 5 July 1876

 loc_tb.00802.jpg Walt Whitman—

I feel a desire to write the things which follow—(somewhat discouraged tho' by getting no answer or notice of what I wrote just about two months ago—it didn't need to be answered—perhaps it would have persuaded you to answer it satisfactorily [illegible]ly desired anything more than [illegible] get it. (An answer by P. Card will satisfy [illegible] want you to know I am not "pouting")

In the fields most things prosper still. The same tenant, a father and grown up son who have made our corn and wheat for several years, are now "laying by" or giving their crop its final working—the wheat is waiting for the coming of the "travelling" thresher, and is much injured by rust. We are having all summer frequent but very light rains. Cotton is healthy but very small—I think because of so little hot sunshine. In the spring, when commencing to plow, I was feeling poorly, and [illegible] my 13 year old boy [illegible] to g[illegible]. But [illegible] I soon improved so as to be able to [illegible] could, and you "better believe" I have been enjoying myself at the plowing and hoeing and always learning some good new "trick" about getting along well with the work.

But I object to your plan of going out nimbly at the peep of day1—no—sleep till near sunrise, then build a fire for mother, bring water from the spring—milk the cow—eat slowly, long, and heartily, get out about an hour or hour and a half after sunrise—take a "siesta" of an hour and a half after dinner [illegible]t treating the tenant men to [illegible] Philosophy and Poetry of[illegible] Look friend the small [illegible]


Let the children sleep long in the summer mornings, for they wont​ sleep at noon. This is the way to conserve health, strength, long life, happiness, sanity of mind.

Sleep, sleep, sleep, viva sleep. (And now I must notice how little Walt is nearing [illegible] bellowing. We are alone. Two boys and two girls at school—two little boys in the woods—mother a mile from home to wash with "soft" water—Papa writing and Walt bellowing—a few minutes ago I put him up stairs to sleep free from flies, and tied his leg with a rope to keep him from tumbling down the stair way, but he got the rope off, and came to the top and stopped there. He has been "cross" for some days, but appears to be well always—curiously, tho​ 19 1/2 months old and very "smart" he yet does'nt​ habitually speak a single word—I have told him Walt, you contain enough,2 why dont​ you let it [illegible] This is July 5—I have [illegible]n in t[illegible] been found by critics for y[illegible]late [illegible]table concessions to the [illegible] thinking of suggesting to you. I think you may have omitted to "celebrate" one very important part of human nature.

Haven't you dwelt too much on the longing for and hope of "Immortality" and the flattering conviction of all good deeds "inuring" to or "coming back" to the doers; and skipped the heroic principle (compound probably of love and courage) which says "I will do good whether it inures or comes back or not, I will be good and heroic [illegible]t my present or future interests [illegible] is necessarily its own reward [illegible] don't want any reward


When I was a prisoner at Camp Douglas,3 I read a tale about a young negro man, who being for sale at an auction, a "bidder" said to him, "if I buy you, will you be honest?" The negro gave him a very expressive look, and said "I will be honest whether you buy me or not" The[illegible] occurred, and people [illegible] "honesty" differ, but such a principle is a good one. "I will be good whether I am "immortal" or not"—"I will be heroic whether anything "inures" or not, even against unpopularity, misunderstanding, hatred, danger, God &c &c". (I dont​ have known enemies.) Walt! I feel confident you are heroic, and I want to hug your neck. (Have you lost money by your last Edition?) Have you sold well? As for me, I am not aggressive, not "a good hater", firm but gentle till​ patience ceases to be a virtue, never was cited [illegible]tial [illegible] ecclesiastical [illegible]by an A[illegible] for a [illegible] of the same name [illegible] important part of the country [illegible] I once sued a borrower of [illegible] for "contempt" as I told him [illegible] to see me—I have had patience and indulgence toward the people to an absurd extent. (It is not where the Philosopher family are well known that people doubt whether there are any honest men, but here they say they believe "some things run in the blood". ☛ But if anybody wants to know whether I can, after long-suffering, be roused to a terrible revengefulness, let them just come and take away from me the pleasure I have had with Walt Whitman's books and to [illegible] the books also—I'll [illegible]


(Please excuse all my hyperbolical expressions in this and past letters, and call them "a poor man's Poetry". Perhaps you may imagine I have been a writer for the "Press" in time; but it is not so; as I am neither writer nor [illegible] I am probably far less of [illegible]ng or obtrusive [illegible] might suppose. Of course I [illegible] myself, and make any additions or preparations that I wish to make anywhere.—I claim a patent right for the my old terms "champion of nature" and "good-enough man" &c &c

If you were to see me, you would be left to lead off in, and govern all conversation, and everything else—I would not inquire into your Politics, Religious views, Secrets.

But I do wish I knew what you think and what is your practice, about the bulding of the new Reli [illegible] [illegible] toward the old [illegible] child [illegible] the [illegible] Schools and Church [illegible] them that it is all "stuff" shall I not be somewhat aggressive toward the Old Theology?

I4 suppose you will not take the r[illegible] of a[illegible] [illegible] to come [illegible]

(Perhaps on all subjects, in time, I have had printed as much as would make 3 or 4 columns of a city paper) Sometimes now I feel a little desire to "dig at the ribs" of demoralizing superstition)

Why didnt​ you notice my anxiety to know (in my 1st of Feb letter5) what may be John Burroughs'6 Post office and if he got what I sent him a full year ago? [illegible]t not to doubt whether my friends get [illegible]

[illegible] unmistakably true "Philosopher" JNJ

Send only a Card to Meltonsville7

Perhaps8 the greatest doubter is the greatest Philosopher

A while9 back some debtors were good enough to pay me a little money!!! I dont​ doubt that.

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 is a reference to Whitman's "Poem of Joys." [back]
  • 2. Johnson is quoting from Whitman's "Song of Myself." [back]
  • 3. During the American Civil War, Camp Douglas—founded in 1861—was a Union camp in Chicago. It initially served as a location for training and staging, and was converted into a prison for Confederate soldiers in 1862. The camp was located on the property of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, for whom it was also named. [back]
  • 4. This part of Johnson's letter is written sideways in the left margin of the fourth page of the letter. [back]
  • 5. Johnson is referring to his letter to Whitman of February 7, 1876 (not February 1). [back]
  • 6. 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]
  • 7. Johnson wrote this postscript at the top of the first page of the letter. [back]
  • 8. This postscript is written upside down at the top of the fourth page of the letter. [back]
  • 9. Johnson started this postscript at the top of page three of the letter and continued on page two. The postscript is written upside down at the top of both pages. [back]
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