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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 8 May 1888


Prose and Verse of Walt Whitman.

Few are aware how the great Literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.

Others adorn the past—but you, O days of the present I adorn you! O days of the future, I believe in you! I isolate myself for your sake! O America, because you build f'r​ mankind, I b'ildf'r​ you!

To hold men together by paper and seal, or by compulsion, is no account; That only holds men together which aggregates all in a living principle, as the hold of the limbs of the body, or the fibres of plants. Of all races and eras, These States, with veins full of poetical stuff, most need poets, and are to have the greatest, and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall. (Soul of love, and tongue of fire! Eye to pierce the deepest deeps, and sweep the world; —Ah mother! prolific and full in all besides—yet how long barren, barren?)

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble; I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet shone upon; I will make divine magnetic lands, With the love of comrades, With the life-long love of comrades.

I DREAM'D​ in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the wholeof the rest of the earth; I dream'd​ that was the new City of Friends. Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love—it led the rest; It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city, And in all their looks and words.2

Printed by the HALF LOAF


John Newton Johnson was a self-styled philosopher from rural Alabama whom Whitman described as "a good affectionate fellow, a sort of uncut gem." There are about thirty letters from Johnson in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection, 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 September 13, 1874, he was forty-two, "gray as a rat," a former Rebel soldier with an income between $300 and $400 annually, though before the war he had been "a youthful 'patriarch.'" He informed Whitman 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. In the letter he enclosed a gold dollar: "So much grand poetry nearly kills me with the pain of delight." Characteristically, he concluded his letter with an unexpected question: "Walt! Are you Orthodox or Universalist? I am Materialist of late." On October 7, 1874, after describing Guntersville, Ala., he commented: "Orthodoxy flourishes with the usual lack of flowers or fruit." His amusingly detailed description of his face on November 7, 1875, Whitman marked in red crayon. Thus Johnson became a self-designated philosophical jester to amuse Whitman. See also Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: Richard G. Badger, The Gorham Press, 1915), 125–130.


  • 1. This postal card is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey. It is postmarked: CAMDEN, N.J. | MAY | 11 | 8AM | Rec'd. Johnson has written his address and the date on the verso of the postal card, above Whitman's address. [back]
  • 2. Johnson has printed on the postcard passages from Whitman's poetry, including "By Blue Ontario’s Shore" (Sections 8 and 9), "For You O Democracy," and "I Dream'd in a Dream." [back]
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