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Bertha Johnston to Walt Whitman, 1 February 1891

 loc.02433.001_large.jpg f'm Bertha Johnston | NY | Grace (the new Mrs: Johnston) | has a little girl baby Dear Uncle Walt:

I did not imagine that so many days would have flown by before I informed you of the great joy that came to us all on the twenty-second of January, when our dear Grace2 received the sweet dignity of Motherhood. The baby came to our world of strife under just such  loc.02433.002_large.jpg conditions as would rejoice your heart. Ideal physical conditions, perfect mental and spiritual equilibrium in the pure hearted Mother, have given the dear little baby girl such a start in life as I wish were possible for every human being—the little one will surely be a power for good in the future. Just now however, she makes a noise in the world very similar to that by which other tiny infants make known their wants. Grace herself is just lovely, and with her baby by her side, is a subject such as would have inspired a Raphael.3 Frances Alma is to be the little one's name. The "Frances" is in honor of Mama,4 May,5 and the eleven year old Franklin6 whose birthday is also on the twenty-second. "Alma" is after dear Mother,7 of course. The children are all as proud as can be of the newcomer, and the acme of happiness is reached when allowed to hold the little mass of "unlocated sensations."


Friday night we had the great pleasure of listening to a fine analysis of the writings (or rather meaning of the writings) and the influence of Thomas Paine.8 The lecturer was Edward King,9 the Little Giant. Moncure R. Conway,10 Father,11 George Francis Train12 and others spoke afterwards. Mr. King laid special emphasis on the fact that Paine, spite of his iconoclastic flaws was constructive, sympathetic rather than destructive. That his aim was to replace superstition with a religion based on facts that are  loc.02433.004_large.jpg to be deduced from ever present phenomena of the physical and moral worlds. The courage and steadfastness of the man, shown by his taking a stand in opposition to his friends even, when conscience required it, were dwelt upon. And oh, to think of our ungrateful country! I wonder if there is a school history in the country that gives the least hint of what we owe to the efforts of Thomas Paine in behalf of the liberties of man. I am sorry I have  loc.02433.005_large.jpg no newspaper clippings to send you—Mr. Traubel13 too would have greatly enjoyed the evening as he is an admirer of Paine. I hope he reached Camden alive. New York must seem to him a very inhospitable place for his train was run into just as the city was reached and when he left, it was after a very slim breakfast.

We see Emma Frag Jenks14 quite often. She is like a bit of sunshine, and her husband15 is a fine young fellow. What we particularly appreciate in him is that on Tuesday nights he is willing to have her attend our Society for Political Study and then at ten o'clock he comes after her, which every young husband might not be willing to do. She does such pretty work in water-colors—.

I wish you could have a glimpse of our boys' playroom. At first glance it is "confusion worse confounded"16 but when viewed in detail it resolves itself  loc.02433.006_large.jpg into four little domains—Harold's,17 Franklin's, Calder's18 and Edwin's.19 At one time soldiers strew the battle-fields—again the tooting of the locomotive is heard, or the shouts of Stanley20 and his men—as they plunge through Darkest Africa—and the agonies those small boys endure if perchance a rustling skirt should ruin a little settlement.

Mother has just read me some words of John Swinton21 taken from to-day's Sun in which he recalls a day spent with you in the hospitals and expresses his appreciation of all you were to your beloved soldiers—

All send much love—

Affectionately Yours, Bertha Johnston.  loc.02435.001.jpg see notes Feb. 4, '91  loc.02435.002.jpg

Bertha Johnston (1872–1953) was the daughter of Whitman's friend John H. Johnston and his first wife Amelia. Like her father, Bertha Johnston was passionate about literature. She was also involved with the suffrage movement and was a member of the Brooklyn Society of Ethical Culture.


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | N.J. It is postmarked: New York | Feb 2 | 330PM | D; Camden, N.J. | Feb | 3 | 6AM | 1891 | Rec'd. [back]
  • 2. Grace McAlpine Johnston (1866–1935), born in Mount Vernon, New York, was the daughter of Walt Whitman's friend John Henry Johnston (1837–1919), a jeweler, and Johnston's first wife, Amelia F. Many (1839–1877). From 1927 to 1931, she served as the President of the oldest women's club in the United States: the Sorosis Club. She was married first to William J. Johnston (1853–1907), a publisher of telegraphic literature and founder of Electrical World; the couple had at least three children. She later married William McCarroll (1851–1933), a Public Service Commissioner ("Mrs. Wm McCarroll, Ex-Sorosis Head, Dies," New York Times [March 11, 1935], 17). For genealogical information on the ancestors and descendants of Grace's father, John H. Johnston, see "John H. Johnston," Families of Dickerman Ancestry: Descendants of Thomas Dickerman an Early Settler of Dorchester, Massachusetts (New Haven, CT: The Tuttle, Morehouse, & Taylor Press, 1897), 267–268. [back]
  • 3. Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483–1520), known as Raphael, was an Italian Renaissance painter and an architect. He ran a large workshop and is well known for the frescoes in what came to be known as the Raphael Rooms of the Apostolic Palace, part of the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. [back]
  • 4. Amelia F. Many Johnston (1839–1877) was New York jeweler John H. Johnston's first wife. The couple had five children. Amelia died the evening of March 26, 1877, while giving birth to Harold Johnston. Whitman, who had been visiting the family, returned to Camden the next day. [back]
  • 5. Mary Frances (May) Johnston (1862–1957) was the daughter of John H. Johnston (1837–1919) and his first wife Amelia Johnston. She was the younger sister of Bertha Johnston (1872–1953), who was involved in the suffrage movement. May later married Arthur Levi, of London, England ("Mrs. A. C. Johnston, Author, Dies at 72," The Brooklyn Daily Eagle [May 3, 1917], 3). [back]
  • 6. Franklin Allen Johnston (1880–1945) was the son of Grace's husband, William John Johnston, and his first wife Martha Armstrong Allen (1858–1888). Franklin Johnston became the president and publisher of the trade publication American Exporter and a member of the Foreign Trade Committee of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. For more information, see his obituary, "Franklin Johnston, Trade publisher," in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (September 20, 1945), 11. [back]
  • 7. Alma Calder Johnston was an author and the second wife of John H. Johnston. Her family owned a home and property in Equinunk, Pennsylvania. For more on the Johnstons, see Susan L. Roberson, "Johnston, John H. (1837–1919) and Alma Calder" (Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 8. Born in Thetford, England, Thomas Paine (1737–1809) emigrated to the British American colonies and became a well-known American political theorist and revolutionary. He was the author of Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis, two pamphlets that significantly influenced the start of the American Revolution, inspiring patriots to call for independence from Great Britain in 1776. [back]
  • 9. Probably Edward King (1848–1896), American journalist and author, whose The Great South: Record of Journeys in 1872–73 (1875), originally published in Scribner’s, was a controversial examination of the South filled with racist descriptions of freed blacks that was influential in undermining Reconstruction-era civil rights policies. [back]
  • 10. Moncure Daniel Conway (1832–1907) was an American abolitionist, minister, and frequent correspondent with Walt Whitman. Conway often acted as Whitman's agent and occasional public relations man in England. For more on Conway, see Philip W. Leon, "Conway, Moncure Daniel (1832–1907)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 11. John H. Johnston (1837–1919) was a New York jeweler and close friend of Whitman. Johnston was also a friend of Joaquin Miller (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, August 14, 1888). Whitman visited the Johnstons for the first time early in 1877. In 1888 he observed to Horace Traubel: "I count [Johnston] as in our inner circle, among the chosen few" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, October 3, 1888). See also Johnston's letter about Whitman, printed in Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915), 149–174. For more on Johnston, see Susan L. Roberson, "Johnston, John H. (1837–1919) and Alma Calder," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 12. George Frances Train (1829–1904) was an entrepreneur who organized the Union Pacific Railroad and Credit Mobilier in the United States during the Civil War to build the eastern section of the transcontinental railroad. [back]
  • 13. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the late 1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 14. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
  • 15. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
  • 16. Johnston is alluding to John Milton's Paradise Lost. [back]
  • 17. Harold "Harry" Hugh Johnston was the son of Whitman's friends John H. and Amelia F. Johnston. Whitman often made long visits to the Johnstons in New York during the late 1870s, and he was very fond of Harry and the other Johnston children. For a picture of Whitman with Harry see the July 1878 photograph by William Kurtz. [back]
  • 18. Calder Johnston was John H. Johnston's youngest son. [back]
  • 19. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
  • 20. Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904) was a journalist and explorer who assisted Beligum's King Leopold II in his land acquisitions in Africa. [back]
  • 21. Scottish-born John Swinton (1829–1901), a journalist and friend of Karl Marx, became acquainted with Whitman during the Civil War. Swinton, managing editor of the New York Times, frequented Pfaff's beer cellar, where he probably met Whitman. Whitman's correspondence with Swinton began on February 23, 1863. Swinton's enthusiasm for Whitman was unbounded. On September 25, 1868, Swinton wrote: "I am profoundly impressed with the great humanity, or genius, that expresses itself through you. I read this afternoon in the book. I read its first division which I never before read. I could convey no idea to you of how it affects my soul. It is more to me than all other books and poetry." On June 23, 1874, Swinton wrote what the poet termed "almost like a love letter": "It was perhaps the very day of the publication of the first edition of the 'Leaves of Grass' that I saw a copy of it at a newspaper stand in Fulton street, Brooklyn. I got it, looked into it with wonder, and felt that here was something that touched on depths of my humanity. Since then you have grown before me, grown around me, and grown into me" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, April 10, 1888). He praised Whitman in the New York Herald on April 1, 1876 (reprinted in Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman [Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883], 36–37). Swinton was in 1874 a candidate of the Industrial Political Party for the mayoralty of New York. From 1875 to 1883, he was with the New York Sun, and for the next four years edited the weekly labor journal, John Swinton's Paper. When this publication folded, he returned to the Sun. See Robert Waters, Career and Conversation of John Swinton (Chicago: C.H. Kerr, 1902), and Meyer Berger, The History of The New York Times, 1851–1951 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951), 250–251. For more on Swinton, see also Donald Yannella, "Swinton, John (1829–1901)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
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