Skip to main content

John H. Johnston to Walt Whitman, 22 September 1890

 loc.02574.001.jpg Dear Walt:

It is very nice to know that you are well enough to write two such nice letters.2 It is wonderful—the rallying power that dear Nature gives us.

I am glad you are pleased with my idea of Ingersoll3 lecturing. It will be a great event.4 One that us Whitmanites will rejoice over as long as we live. I got Ingersoll interested two years ago in Saratoga. Since then he has dipped into L. of G. very often, (I can tell) and now—what do you think?! The other  loc.02574.002.jpg  loc.02574.006.jpg day he said to me "Johnston do you know that I think there is nothing greater in Poetry in our language than Walt's tribute to Lincoln"5

Ingersoll has a great soul, and it did me good to hear him say it. And it was then I suggested the lecture, I want an address by him in permanent shape, that dinner speech6 ought to have been saved for posterity—Now we will perhaps have something as great or greater.7

Excuse great haste. Regards to Mrs Davis.8

Yrs sincerely JH Johnston  loc.02574.003.jpg  loc.02574.004.jpg See notes Sept 23, '90  loc.02574.005.jpg

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).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | N.J. It is postmarked: New York | Sep 22 | 7 PM | D; Camden, N.J. | Sep | 23 | 6AM | 1890 | [illegible]. The envelope has a printed return address: J. H. Johnston & Co., | Diamond Merchants and Jewelers, | 17 Union Square, New York. | Cor. Broadway & 15th St. [back]
  • 2. Whitman wrote two letters to Johnston on September 20, 1890: one early in the day, and another after Whitman's biographer and disciple Horacel Traubel mentioned Johnston's idea to hold a lecture event for the poet that would include a lecture by Robert Ingersoll. [back]
  • 3. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Horace Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]
  • 4. Johnston is referring to the idea of holding a lecture event in Whitman's honor. The event took place on October 21 at Philadelphia's Horticultural Hall. Orator and agonostic Robert Ingersoll delivered the lecture, which was titled "Liberty in Literature. Testimonial to Walt Whitman." See Ingersoll's October 12, 1890, and October 20, 1890, letters to Whitman. [back]
  • 5. Johnston is referring to Whitman's poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." [back]
  • 6. Whitman's friends gave him a birthday supper in honor of his 71st birthday on May 31, 1890, at Reisser's Restaurant in Philadelphia, at which the noted orator Col. Robert G. Ingersoll (1833–1899) gave a "grand speech, never to be forgotten by me" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). Daniel Brinton (1837–1899), a professor of linguistics and archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, presided, and other speakers included the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) and Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914), a writer and a physician specializing in nervous disorders. The Philadelphia Inquirer carried the story on the front page on the following day. The Camden Daily Post article "Ingersoll's Speech" of June 2, 1890, was written by Whitman himself and was reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (Prose Works, 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall, 2 vols. [New York: New York University Press: 1963–1964], 686–687). Later Traubel wrote "Walt Whitman's Birthday" for Unity (25 [August 28, 1890], 215). [back]
  • 7. Whitman later recorded in his Commonplace Book his impressions of Ingersoll's October 21, 1890, speech: "Well the Ingersoll lecture came off last evn'g in Horticultural Hall, Broad st: Phila:—a noble, (very eulogistic to WW & L of G) eloquent speech, well responded to by the audience. There were 1600 to 2000 people, (choice persons,) one third women (Proceeds to me $869.45)—I went over, was wheeled on the stage in my ratan chair, and at the last spoke a very few words—A splendid success for Ingersoll, (& me too.) Ing. had it written, & read with considerable fire, but perfect ease" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]
  • 8. Mary Oakes Davis (1837 or 1838–1908) was Whitman's housekeeper. For more, see Carol J. Singley, "Davis, Mary Oakes (1837 or 1838–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
Back to top