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John Newton Johnson to Walt Whitman, 14 March [1878]

 loc.02419.001_large.jpg To Walt Whitman—

The reason of my writing this letter is because I have not got even a short letter from you to [damage] you got one which I wrote about a month ago. Maybe the old man has been away from home—I will not permit myself to fear you had been bad sick. This is a pleasant morning, this Thursday, March 14. Temperature agreeable even to a still or idle person—no wind, a good deal smoky, birds chirping, children playing noisily and sweeping the yard. My boy is running my plow—preparing ground for our usual cotton crop—somehow there seems never to be much use for us to raise anything else—people buy too much of our other produce with promises which they do not comply with.

It looks like that I ought to be happy today—a home, my own—family healthy—no debts—not an enemy (brooding over injuries or insults) in the whole world—entire trust or confidence of everybody except such as may think he must be a bad man who denies "God".—Well, health will not last always; most of us must (as I state it) "be dragged to death through much of suffering" sometimes—maybe I will get off like my "papa" and his mother (years apart) as if by lightning stroke. Other troubles spring up along the path for the majority—life is and must be a fight, a warfare, and a race,—then why should  loc.02419.002_large.jpgother—good people—Gods people despise us who say it is not good and beautiful that we should have to fight two fights and run two races at once? I have dreamed that the law we are under now is enough.

What a variety of people on this earth! Living, last year and this, on my other farm (B)1 is an old man (perhaps 60 or 62) a local Methodist preacher, hot tempered; exceeding plucky for war or work; neat, stylish, or dressy and luxurious so far as able; pretty good common sense, somewhat reflective; can only be scrupulous God-ward, not perhaps, such man-ward, time and again clipping off profits or more of dues to creditors by neglect, refusal or "inability" to make final settlement. Now the curious is this,—he seems to think that preaching God and preaching worship and preaching dainty, formal, ceremoniousness is all that is morally good or grand—without saying so, seems to think that J. N.'s truthfulness (always), unparalleled disinterestedness, candor, childlike simplicity, practising and advocating frugality, plainness, moderation, self-denial, philo[cut away] content, plain speaking, are just about worth nothing or next to nothing. Do you share my astonishment? I have been too tender and kind to impress upon him that a preacher or Christian's example can't be worth much because people  loc.02419.003_large.jpg [cut away] also upon such as [damage] man's hirelings, or [cut away] years ago [cut away] to me (me while [cut away] undecided [cut away] hate to see people not trying [cut away] exert any [cut away] moral influence at all". Ba[cut away] "My course runs below the soundings of plummets".—Myself and wife went over there last night—staid some hours—talked "commonplace" a long time then read to him "The Singer in the Prison"—Fall behind me States—Carol of Occupations—The Wound-dresser—and Come up from the fields Father—then we said good-night and walked home by moon-light ¾ mile. This old man fell upon my charity about Nov.​ 30/76—He could get no other home. I have here 280 acres land or room—not very valuable—two farms—160, ⅓ cleared and cultivated—80, ¼ worn out and washed away, ¼ good and mellow for old Orthodox—he is poor (if proud and apostolic) and I sincerely pity him, but I think stubborn Orthodox people must themselves be hard-hearted—I have 40 acres timbered "ridge" land (I said our ridge, 11 miles long, splitting our long narrow valley was 150 feet high, that may be too low, maybe its 200 feet high, I get fresh breath, health and wildness when I go to its peaks—or ravines. I took that wild spot for my temple and to get out stone the early spring before before before I first got your books—also perhaps two or three  loc.02419.004_large.jpg [illegible] seeing yours, I then said [illegible] I could write the [illegible] as written—I thought, [illegible] it ought to be poetry and that rhyming poetry would not answer the purpose. (I [illegible] may think I am fixing up a lie [illegible] didn't study the matter much, but certainly this is not something I have been dreaming—I know it is not.

About two weeks ago I walked, late one afternoon, 3 miles, to have a reading of some hours with our "best" school-teacher—we sat up some hours, with another young man of some intelligence, and read J. B.'s "Before Beauty—Before Genius—and a little in "Emerson" and "Whitman"—I did not take along your heavy works—just J.B.s book and War "Memoranda"—what think you? Two years ago this (kindly) "pedagogue" said he saw a Southern Newspaper then said you were cruel to rebel prisoners in the war. I then told him, perhaps the paper was only rebutting your Memoranda statements of Southern cruelties, by it stating how we suffered in Northern prisons—maybe you were sometimes a little rough in conversation with our hot-headed fools. I wish to keep J.B.s book, and I sent part pay ($1) in my Feb-letter. I said maybe you wished me to consider myself subtly, discreetly, beautifully, generously complimented in the name and several places of the text of our Two Rivulets??

You'll know the name— the tenant who makes my grain on my home farm, for 6 or more years, is still engaged—he has also his own little [cut away]

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. On the right side of this page, Johnson included a pencil diagram of his farm with geographical markers ("big river, limestone, heavy clay," and so forth). The diagram is labeled with the letters "A" and "B." [back]
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