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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 20 February 1877


Nothing from you since last of July—I sent a card early in August, and a few lines at Christmas. Much serious experiences in past seven months, and would be sad, except to "a ruler of life or a powerful conqueror"1still commanding plenty and peace and goodwill with all people. Are you going to live and be happy, and write and print good things for the world and [damage] Hilton still Alabama

John J  loc.02401.002.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. A slightly misquoted line from Whitman's "A Poem of Joys." In the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass the line reads: "O, while I live, to be the ruler of life—not a slave, / To meet life as a powerful conqueror, / No fumes—no ennui—no more complaints, or scornful criticisms." [back]
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