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Walt Whitman to Dr. John Johnston, 9 January 1891

Y'rs of Dec: 272 weclomed with copy of J A S[ymonds]'s3 & the paper & poem—yes I will send the copy to Dr B[ucke]4 (it is beautiful)5—have just rec'd some impressions f'm the plate printer f'm y'r celluloid negative6—curiously good & fine, no better work (I often say the last best work is the right press-work)—next time you write give me a list of whom you have sent the Notes to—(I think you have builded better than you knew)—Am getting along fairly, even well—am sweating here to night (all right in itself)—steady cold & at present dry & clear—God bless you all—

Walt Whitman

Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, was a physician, photographer, and avid cyclist. Johnston was trained in Edinburgh and served as a hospital surgeon in West Bromwich for two years before moving to Bolton, England, in 1876. Johnston worked as a general practitioner in Bolton and as an instructor of ambulance classes for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. He served at Whalley Military Hospital during World War I and became Medical Superintendent of Townley's Hospital in 1917 (John Anson, "Bolton's Illustrious Doctor Johnston—a man of many talents," Bolton News [March 28, 2021]; Paul Salveson, Moorlands, Memories, and Reflections: A Centenary Celebration of Allen Clarke's Moorlands and Memories [Lancashire Loominary, 2020]). Johnston, along with the architect James W. Wallace, founded the "Bolton College" of English admirers of the poet. Johnston and Wallace corresponded with Whitman and with Horace Traubel and other members of the Whitman circle in the United States, and they separately visited the poet and published memoirs of their trips in John Johnston and James William Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). For more information on Johnston, see Larry D. Griffin, "Johnston, Dr. John (1852–1927)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Dr Johnston | 54 Manchester Road | Bolton | Lancashire | England. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Jan 10 | 12 M | 91; Philadelphia, Pa. | Jan 10 | 4 PM | Paid. [back]
  • 2. See Johnston's December 27, 1890, letter to Whitman. [back]
  • 3. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew C. Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. Johnston included in his letter some of his verses, a copy of the Annandale Observer, and a typescript of Symonds' letter dated December 22, 1890, a tender and moving piece in which he wrote: "For a broken & ageing man of letters up here among the Alpine snows [in Davos Platz], these particulars . . . bring a film before the eyes, through which swims so much of life, of the irrecoverable past, of the unequal battle with circumstances, of spiritual forces wh' have sustained, & of the failures wh' have saddened. I do not know whether you have seen a short piece of writing by me, in which I said that Whitman's work had influenced me more than any thing in literature except the Bible & Plato. This expresses the mere fact, so far as I can read my inner self, though perhaps my own industry in life, on the lines of author mainly, may not seem to corroborate my statement." [back]
  • 6. Whitman expresses his appreciation for the photographs in his September 8, 1890, postal card to Johnston. Whitman also mentions that he wants to use the photos for his "forthcoming little (2d) annex," which would become Good-Bye My Fancy (1891). [back]
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