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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 8 February 1878

 loc.02404.001.jpg To Walt Whitman—

I'll not date this, as I am away from home—farther than I've been for some time—at town, 13 miles away. You might thus direct a reply.

Well I [damage] sold my cotton bales. The market [damage]. Compelled to sell to get money [damage] tax. Had to agree to take one third [damage] merchandise. Think I've done well enough. At any rate what promises to satisfy one ought to be well. & make the smallest [damage] a draw and wait.

I believe I will enclose you one dollar (without registering) for past pay for J. Burroughs's1 book. You can let me know how much more will be required to get you another copy. I think you will [damage] to keep the book I have. Then I can [damage] it to my friends—and one's self likes to read a good book over many times—that is if one's self has fine good sense.

How I read the latter half of J.B's book quick and carefully at first—then wanted time to study the less important first half. I have loved The Birds,2 but one needs names to study anything, and I always distrusted getting right names from our composite, mongrel population, and also  loc.02404.002.jpg my eyes have been not strong enough for the purposes of Birds—[damage] them sore by reading in early life—now at 45 & 46 they are better than from 10 to 25 and I read the finest print, new [damage] glasses. But I'll not make discovery [damage] and report to J.B—

"Before Genius" [damage] "Before Beauty" are good [damage]. Most [damage] are "just as surely coarse as they are fine." Probably General Lee was not coarse, but was he great?

That John Burroughs is one of the most highly accomplished men in the world, I dont doubt but claim it for him, and morally his likes and dislikes promise or argue [damage]. (I sent him a long letter in October already prepared and sent off a few minutes after getting his book. If you can remember, next time you write to him say for me I did not get his reply. He may think I should have written again.

This thing now while writing. Perhaps you would rather have to think a friend to be vain than to think him stupid. This might be the last time I can ever write to you—life is  loc.02404.003.jpg uncertain. When I saw that your new book was going to be called Two Rivulets I suspected it might be you and I—two "envisioned" and friendly souls. You must forgive me (even if you have to laugh enough to complete the restoration of your health)—but I have really called Two Rivulets our book. Then if you are rested enough to bear to laugh some more, I will say this—somebody [damage] had a curious story published in Blackwood's Magazine3—it was copied by an American newspaper which accidentally fell into my hands—I was prepared for it in part. It was copied in October 1876. If you could see the volume of Blackwoods for 1876, maybe you will find it, and need to be prepared to be indignant for I think you were abused one more time. Maybe you know who wrote the story entitled "John's Hero"—

If I am "a seer" or in any way "great", certainly I am coarse as well as fine. Overflowing with lubricating humor.


Now if this all looks like a lot of foolishness and stupidity, you are a man of great charity and you can

and you must

forgive me.

I see what Burroughs says about Emerson's writings, and think I must order some of his books. A friend sent me a copy of the Boston "Index". Emerson's Prose Writings in Two Volumes is priced $5, but whether $5 each or $2.50 each I cant tell but guess $2.50 each. The small volumes separately would cost much more but would be more handy and probably larger print.

I guess the collected Prose works in two volumes may not contain his last prose writing. Probably his First Essays and English Traits would be best for me if I should choose to invest in a small way at first.

Maybe I need not write more now,

J.N.J. Meltonsville Alabama

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 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]
  • 2. John Burroughs's Birds and Poets (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1877). [back]
  • 3. Blackwood's Magazine was a British magazine printed between 1817 and 1980. For more information, see David Finkelstein, The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Age (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002). [back]
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