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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 20 May 1877


To Walt Whitman [damage] While most of what I have [damage] written to [damage] further amid a sort of [damage]tion of [damage] for spells of tedium lonesomeness [damage] exceptional—just now I begin [damage]freeness and soothing or happy [damage] out coming from a pure bodily feeling [damage] and sleeping today, for the remorse [damage] interruption of health.) Scenery— [damage] earth, bright sunshine, numerous [damage] a brisk, changeable breeze, a world [damage] every direction—no flowers,and I [damage] you could forgive me for this—but [damage] you what has been a frequent [damage] mine—"if all the things which are [damage] done, were left undone, and all the [damage] which are barely undone, were done, the world every way would present a very different appearance." P.S. Isn't this worth a postage stamp? I, myself, represent "falsehoods," and "the sale of slaves"—4 or 5 years before my father and mother were married, he was engaged to another woman in another State—going off to Virginia [damage] a few slaves, the woman when he [damage] towards home with his [damage] was that [damage] another man, and she cried [damage]—(the tale as it was told me after [damage] cook woman who was then a [damage]

I am [damage] put this letter into Paragraphs


A neighbor's child was drowned the other day, but restored—its parents temporarily absent from home, returned and found their 4 year old boy in the bottom of a shallow well, dead. I would remark upon the [damage] nation of distress and happiness [damage] felt. [damage] that child and all they [damage] sometime he again, and probably after [damage] suffering. We should be prepared before [damage] for invasions." Yet, you, probably have [damage] with some in the manner you should.—

Away with you [damage] immortality"—

the world has [damage] that

enough already [damage] have any-

thing new, [damage] to say,

let us have it; but how much

better to do good to our fellow man because he needs to get his happiness here.)—

A remarkable Book has lately appeared, giving the strange history of a Rev. Mr. Sanders in Madison County next this.2 I had heard a little about him before. During 20 years he has had what they call "sleeping spells" lasting from minutes to hours and days. It is hardly to be doubted that he has been seeing and [damage] accurately in an unusual way. The reason which possesses him is a mighty good[damage]—upholds all the "great and glorious [illegible] his Orthodox) church—never [damage] language began to write a little [damage] gradually  loc.02400.005.jpg came to writing a great deal—the sermon always in writing styles Mr Sanders only "my Casket [damage] doesn't that sound clergyman-like?), and [damage] his own name invariably "X + Y = Z [damage] he wrote that he was a school student [damage] he began this oddity and horrible [damage] and bodily suffering——perhaps [damage] studying Algebra. A singing preaching praying [damage] I see that [damage] through accident or design several of [damage] certify to the phenomena, have [damage]ious, or very guarded language. The sermon wrote to his "Casket a letter [damage] announcing that he would leave [damage] sometime, giving him much exhortation [damage] mostly Paul's farewell advice to [damage]—I believe.—I have not the Book [damage] of course I have consulted Abercrombie [damage]. Phil. (which I happened to buy long [damage]—Dreaming, Somnambulist, Insanity, Coincidences, his own absurd reasoning all there. I have studied, and studied, and studied—taking it easy tho'—thought I ought to go to see Sanders; till I saw the D— had left him. From May till Sept the man remained well. Take note that I have been fearing that you may be to some degree seduced by the professor [damage] people's growing kindness. (Walt! [damage] be a renegade—you must stand by [damage] "wicked and [damage] and [damage]please stand by them [damage] let no blandishments [damage]

*Are you not ambiguous in "Two Rivulets" latter part note "Freed


I have never read Books on "Political Economy", but during the last year have studied more on the subject of [damage] Profit on Capital—concluded that perhaps no [damage] at all would be nearer right—at least [damage] to be very small indeed—the [damage] opportune for I have various [damage] with in mostly poor, who [damage] prepared to pay Interest—I can [damage] more pity borrowers and renters.—

You old rascal! you [damage] have declined to say you would advise me about books to buy—I would'nt​ have [damage] much—I shall not have much [damage] to spare to buy any books—(I will [damage] always have enough to buy all that [damage]) I did want to ask if you thought I would [damage] pleased and some profited by [damage] Emerson's.

As I only made half [damage] year, and price of cotton seems to have settled down permanently, I spent last year several times as much as I made—also during same time became pretty well convinced that a good deal of debts owing to me will never be paid. I dont feel so rich as I did 3 years ago, but if so resolute a man, so [damage] lastingly thoughtful a man, can't [damage] along well enough to satisfy such [damage] please to [damage] me who should? [damage] suppose that I shall find myself [damage] ingenious? Make the Phil. Weekly Times. [damage] this year, ¾ corn, ¼ cotton [damage] barely send this or [damage]

 loc.02400.001.jpg  loc.02400.002.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. The envelope for the letter bears the address: Walt Whitman | [damage] Camden | New Jersey. The return address is listed as: Meltonsville Ala | May 22/77 | May 22/77. [back]
  • 2. This is likely a reference to Rev. G. W. Mitchell's X + Y = Z; or The Sleeping Preacher of North Alabama (New York: W. C. Smith, 1876). [back]
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