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Walt Whitman to John H. Johnston, 20 September 1890

Dear friend J H J—

have just heard by Horace Traubel2 that (thro' you) Col. Ingersoll3 favors the idea of a public meeting & address ab't me4—(get the notion that he has been solicited or even persuadedwh' I don't like at all—not warranted or authorized by me, at any rate—but let that pass)5—If this is so ab't Col. I's design I myself think the best place would be New York City, tho' I believe Horace & some other friends believe Phila: best—Of course I dont know what Col I's drift and vein may be, but I know it w'd be grand, & something I sh'd be proud of—On the impulse of the moment I have gather'd these items enclosed & send to you, to give all the note (with scraps enclosed all as it is) to Col. I with my respects, thanks, & love6—I shall give the whole proposed meeting, address &c: into his and y'r & the friends' hands7—without any meddling by me—

Walt Whitman

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: J H Johnston | Diamond Merchant | 150 Bowery cor: Broome St: | New York City. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Sep (?) | 6 AM | (?). [back]
  • 2. 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]
  • 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. Whitman is referring to the lecture in his honor, which would take place on October 21 at Philadelphia's Horticultural Hall. Johnston and the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke planned the event, and Robert Ingersoll delivered the lecture. See Ingersoll's October 12 and October 20 letters to Whitman. [back]
  • 5. Whitman expressed his conflicted feelings about the "Ingersoll affair" in his September 19 letter to Bucke. See also Bucke's September 22 reply. [back]
  • 6. In a note on this letter, Edwin Haviland Miller provides the following explanation: On October 3 Whitman "sent copies of the big book [Complete Poems & Prose (1888), Dr B[ucke]'s W[alt] W[hitman] and J[ohn] B[urroughs]'s Notes [on Walt Whitman] (with portraits W W in envelope) to Col: Ingersoll" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). See Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–69), 5:89n64. However, on September 23, Johnston says he received the items that Whitman refers to here, suggesting that the October 3 gift to Ingersoll refers to another matter. [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]
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