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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 14 December 1878


Because the time is short this must be abrupt, disconnected, fragmentary (perhaps)

Your card and paper brought from P.O. yesterday.

I have recovered from that laziness I complained of in spring or early summer. Do you know ones home or dwelling may be so situated with reference to open road, path to the spring, fields, pasture land, garden ground &c that the position of out buildings, fences &c are not well indicated? such has been mine. But my doubts being settled a little I can find occupation, and that will cure my sickening laziness—indeed several new steps are clearly indicated in my farm operations.

My crop is fair—my renters did so well by high, warm land early planted—my own cotton started off in early summer to​ slow and a July drouth​ coming on, the plant or "weed" was amazingly small, but it is mighty well filled with fruit.

Little Walt1 is a robust, healthy fellow—much so.


Perhaps I dont owe it to you, but to myself to explain—being so enthusiastic, why have I not before this visited you. Well I thought you were so sick it would be little satisfaction to you—then since the price of cotton went down so much 3 years ago and followed by two small crops of it then most all of a few hundred dollars owing to me is by a man who bought property largely in the flush times—I dont know when he can conveniently pay me (other creditors may be pressing)—I desire to see you sometime—

Of course I am only a farmer with no understanding of fine peoples' etiquette—I might be a sort of elephant in your hands (but I believe you and I laying our heads together could do almost anything—I dont know much of anything—I guess I possess about the best rested brain in the world—I thought early that I would not endanger my sanity or health by any hard study (I dont win I have ever needed to know much—yet I know you think I am solid and sound—I'd like to loafe with you in a country place or library or through a city's streets.

My instinct has always been against immortality; this a state of probation &c


My idea has always been that this life is for itself, for itself.

"Dignified appearance"—I swear I have on most all occasions of my life striven to be un-dignified. Somehow dignity (apparent) has been associated in my mind with selfish, resentful, misanthropic, un Democratic, un–brotherly feeling. I swear I have always most wished to be thought just and kind—been willing to be thought (if possible) a good natured fool. for simple ways, for restoring belief in what man sometimes is.

I've thought lately these pieces would make a good, orderly arranged little book by itself. 1—Carol of Words (things are the best teachers. 2. Open Road (exhortaition​ to free and abundant thinking and aspiration) 3. Brooklyn Ferry. 4. With Antecedents 5 Carol of Occupations. 6 Broad Axe Poem.

A small percentage of the meaning of the Axe Poem escaped me till lately (it is grand)

I have a young, poor farmer (of 26) new acquaintance, 1¼ miles from me studying Edition 1871 after Burroughs' Notes2 and Eagle's flight3—he seems to get along well (with my clear explanations)—how long will he be a Baptist?  loc.02405.004_large.jpg He questioned me. These lines puzzled me always and I answered so—but instantly then this doubt or suspicion (in talking with two men) (he said what means "A young man comes to me bearing a message from his brother &c &c &c 3 lines"

☞ A young man takes up W.W.'s book thinking he (the youth) understands human nature ☞ how can he? for "only after many years" &c &c &c Am I right? the young must wait and become old (to be wise).

I've got my old renter the Methodist (local) preacher on Two Rivulets. I told him I never expected to convert him so great the power of habit in thinking but wanted to show him some of us are great and good. He doesn't wish to grant that a man possessing all virtues possible to the best Christian could be good if he lacked Christian belief and worship. Walt: the man is not at all a fool, but I think he makes not one person love him (except relationship)—what a curious cold-hearted unloving "reformer" he is. He goes through life (they say and he admits) dropping unpaid debts behind him—says he must withhold something to live on and not starve. Some say he's dishonest—but I hope he'll do nearly right with me—certainly he treated me respectfully and kindly years ago when he seemed to expect nothing. He never has family worship but grace at table

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. Walt Whitman Johnson (1874–1935) was one of the children of John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) and his second wife, Sarah Evergreen Parker (1846–1907). [back]
  • 2. John Burroughs's Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person was first published in New York in 1867. The text was extensively revised and rewritten by Whitman. [back]
  • 3. This is a reference to "The Flight of the Eagle" in Birds and Poets. See the letter from Whitman to John Burroughs of January 24, 1877. [back]
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