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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 7 May 1876

 loc_tb.00795.jpg Walt Whitman—

This not so much if at all an exposure of anything [illegible] harmless, facts, thoughts, perhaps idle aspirations. [illegible]t with a lot of g[illegible] not to take up at [illegible] to put [illegible] of listlessness wh[illegible] seems to be better comp[illegible] at all. Charity, not for you, but for myself, is the motive, as this is (forenoon of Monday, May 8,) a day when the fields are too much soaked with rain for out-door farming business, and the man is lonesome. (Now, if there were living near me, such people that I could take my Walt Whitman books with me, and by reading to them, or having them read for themselves, see them jump up and shout "glory, glory, hallelujah" like the good follks​ do it [illegible] I could pass the day well. But it is [illegible] so much different [illegible] I am a poor, [illegible]—as for styling myself "philosopher," I will [illegible] that, and let you see whether you have guessed well if you have taken interest in the matter enough to be guessingit is not a term ever applied by others to me, and has very seldom been used by me 'till​ writing to you—a nom de plume—sometimes when I am talking to myself I use the title—also some years ago when I saw in a newspaper mention of a character (perhaps), a "J.N. the Philosopher" I thought it might be some one's mischief concerning myself on account of [illegible] methodical, systematic manner in conversations and eccentricity [illegible]ality of ways [deletion] and myself [deletion]ish to sig[deletion]  loc_tb.00797.jpg they might fall into wrong hands, and being so frank or communicative—you see—

Possibly, possibly, you will like to know how I like your new issues.1 It does me great good to see the full length [illegible]—a very proper embellishment [deletion] a work, almost convincing [deletion] open [deletion]t has [illegible] not for eccentricity, but for comfort, very necessary to [illegible])—the intercalations are good—I judge the new issue was printed from old plates still in your possession (printing and mis-printing all the same). How much would it cost to print for me about 6 copies of the full-length picture?

When the two books came to the post-office, I read to the P.M., an old man of large body, brain, and general solidity, and a consistent Union man, the "Song of the Banner at Day-Break"—it seemed to please him powerfully.

I tell you Kosmos! "the Philosopher" is a fine reader—voice a little husky and nasal at times, and teeth awful bad, but the quality to bring forth what lies slumbering as farther back than lips or teeth. If I were a rich man I would print in great, big type, that Song, for wide distribution at the Centennial,2 and if you pestered me about infringement of copy-right, I would pull your beard.

In "Two Rivulets" I see nothing but what is good.

The Passage to India3 and the Strong Bird4 &c were not new to me—I had them before. Democratic Vistas5 was new—thinking of lending the book among the most suitable people around me (people perhaps too poor to buy for themselves, or at least not disposed,) I have marked about one[illegible] in passing of Vistas as condensed expression [deletion] of e[illegible]t vol  loc_tb.00798.jpg a good deal in other places—your books tho'​ are bad books for marking—so many marks to make, the object is defeated. I dont​ want my your books worn out by borrowers but I like to lend them as I feel [illegible] like—sending out messengers to[illegible] tell people to come into the feast of[illegible] Not being a follower of f[illegible] have been any enthusiast about flags of any sort, or disposed to pronounce any (either) cause certainly just or holy, but I much admire all your Flag and Union and Soldier and Hospital writings—I wouldn't give 10 cents for life-size paintings of Grant,6 Sherman,7 Lee,8 Johnston,9 Davis10 and infinituus​

I wish you would sometime take up Democratic Vistas (for me) and read (Conscience) Page 62 and then bottom of Page 69—please read all of it (for me). All of Dem Vistas.

Concerning that Exposition, and people coming or not coming to it. I see that I can get (or have) the means to come and pay my own way, first and last. As a matter of policy, here are considerations. A man with a large family, in resolving to spend, ought to think not merely of his principal, but of his income; think of the easiness, or the difficulty and slowness of replacing what he may spend. The principle of self-denial and paternal solicitude says for me to consider what good can I make it do my family if I make that visit to Phila.?

Under some circumstances it may do much good—they wish me to do so—I might please them a great deal by the relation of what I should see—[deletion]nd the ve[deletion] instruct  loc_tb.00799.jpg them, give all a taste for reading, and in time "elevated sentiments". Of course the crowding, and [illegible]ing and multitude of sights and sounds would [deletion] a wild man very much, and he might not [illegible] a distinct remembrance of any considerable part. S[deletion] would make kept and freely use[illegible]

I know under favorable conditions the chance to see and talk with (just, lone, solitary) Walt Whitman would be half of my pleasure. And again, if I could write, speak, act, or look so as to win any considerable bit of kind notice, or useful suggestions from you, I know it would afford a great pleasure certainly, and perhaps be a valuable moral stimulant and elevator to the family. Put this against the outlay. I wish to find the best book for them, and to inspire them with pride, that they may be worthy wife and children of a home-made Philosopher.

All stubbornly at my own expense. As I write this, I am not disposed to come there. I swear I wont if you say I shall not see you,

But if I could come at my convenient time, and hire lodging close to Walt, and step in for a week at your convenient times, and beard the (reticent) lion in his den, and make him give me a great deal of information and good advice, it might pay us here finely.

As I have exhausted my sheet, I forbear giving news of the situation with us, till​ such is called for.

I guess wh[illegible] having [deletion]gs.



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. During the centennial celebration of the U.S. in 1876, Whitman reissued the fifth edition of Leaves of Grass in the repackaged form of a "Centennial Edition" and "Author's Edition," with most copies personally signed by the poet. Two Rivulets was published as a companion volume to the book. Notable for its experimentations in form, typography, and printing convention, Whitman's two-volume set marks an important departure from previous publications of Leaves of Grass. For more information, see Frances E. Keuling-Stout, " Leaves of Grass, 1876, Author's Edition," "Two Rivulets, Author's Edition [1876]," and "Preface to Two Rivulets [1876]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. In 1876, the National Centennial commemorated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Centennial was marked by celebrations across the United States, not the least of which was the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which ran from May to November 1876 with approximately 10 million visitors in a seven-month period. [back]
  • 3. First printed as a separate publication containing the title poem, some new poetry, and a number of poems previously published in Leaves of Grass, "Passage to India" was Whitman's attempt to "celebrate in my own way, the modern engineering masterpieces . . . the great modern material practical energy & works," including the completion of the Suez Canal (1869), the Union and Central Pacific transcontinental railroad (1869), and the completion of the Atlantic Cable (1866) (see Whitman's April 22, 1870, letter to Moncure D. Conway). Although Whitman submitted the poem to the Overland Monthly on April 4, 1870, it was rejected on April 13, 1870, for being "too long and too abstract for the hasty and material-minded readers of the O. M." Conway, Walt Whitman's agent in England, was not able to sell the poem to an English journal. John Burroughs observed in the second edition of his Notes on Walt Whitman as a Poet and Person (1871), 123: "The manuscript of Passage to India was refused by the monthly magazines successively in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and London." The poem was eventually included in the final three editions of Leaves of Grass, published in 1871, 1881, and 1891. For more information on "Passage to India," see John B. Mason, "'Passage to India' (1871)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. Whitman recited his poem "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free" (later "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood") at the Dartmouth commencement on June 26, 1872. The poem was first published in the the June 26, 1872, issue of the New York Herald. It was then published with seven other poems in a pamphlet, also titled As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free (1872). It was later included as a supplement bound into Two Rivulets (1876). Later, Whitman changed the title to "Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood," added a new opening stanza, made additional revisions, and incorporated the poem into Leaves of Grass (1881–82). [back]
  • 5. Whitman's Democratic Vistas was first published in 1871 in New York by J.S. Redfield. The volume was an eighty-four-page pamphlet based on three essays, "Democracy," "Personalism," and "Orbic Literature," all of which Whitman intended to publish in the Galaxy magazine. Only "Democracy" and "Personalism" appeared in the magazine. For more information on Democratic Vistas, see Arthur Wrobel, "Democratic Vistas [1871]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822–1885) was the highest ranking Union general of the Civil War. As commander of the Army of the Potomac, he accepted the surrender of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Grant was elected to two consecutive terms as president, first in 1868 and again in 1872. [back]
  • 7. William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–1891), one of the most successful Union generals of the Civil War, succeeded Ulysses S. Grant as the commanding general of the Union Army. In August 1865, the city of St. Louis presented Sherman a gift of $30,000 to buy a house in the city, and he purchased a house on Garrison Avenue near the corner of Franklin ("A Gift to General Sherman," New York Times, March 18, 1866, 1). [back]
  • 8. General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) was an American military officer who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in the American Civil War. [back]
  • 9. Johnson may be referring to Albert Sidney Johnston (1803–1862) or to Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807–1891), both of whom were generals in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. [back]
  • 10. Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) served as president of the Confederacy from 1861–1865. Before the Civil War, he served in the United States Congress for the state of Mississippi. [back]
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