Walt Whitman (1819 to 1892) was an American poet who pioneered the use of free verse in his work. Although at first not popular in his home country, his poetry received good reviews in Britain. He had a group of devoted followers in Bolton who set up the Whitman Fellowship, and referred to themselves as disciples.
- Whitman never visted Bolton but he developed strong ties through his correspondence with local doctor John Johnston and draughtsman J. W. Wallace
- Bolton Archives holds many papers, letters and photographs related to Whitman and the Fellowship
- The Whitman Fellowship celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2008. They still meet each year on the 31st of May to celebrate Whitman's birthday
- More about Walt Whitman
Whitman was born on Long Island and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He had little formal education and moved through various temporary occupations, including journalism, before publishing the first edition of his book of poems, 'Leaves of Grass', in 1855. Written in a simple style and dispensing with traditional poetic devices, these poems represent an early form of free verse.
Whitman spent the rest of his life revising and expanding this volume, producing nine editions in total. Whitman's work was largely ignored by the general public in America until the 1870s, when favourable reviews of his poetry appeared in England. Whitman died at his home in Mickle Street, Camden, New Jersey, in 1892.
Although Whitman never visited Britain he developed close ties with Bolton. Two men living here, an architectural draughtsman J. W. Wallace, and a Scottish doctor John Johnston corresponded with Whitman from 1885 until his death in 1892.
The pair also visited Walt Whitman in America, Johnston in 1890 and Wallace in 1891. Johnston subsequently published the diaries he kept of his American experiences under the title of Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890-1891.
The Bolton Whitmanites
Wallace was also the leader of Bolton’s Whitman Fellowship (the Whitmanites) which met in his house in Eagle Street, Bolton, from about 1885. Although Wallace moved to Adlington in the early 1890s, the group continued to meet in members’ houses.
Through the group Whitman became a catalyst for a number of long friendships and international correspondence.
Charles Frederick Sixsmith
Wallace invited his friend Charles Frederick Sixsmith to attend their meetings in the early 1890s. Sixsmith worked at Bentinck Mills, Farnworth, where he held the post of managing director for 40 years until his retirement in 1933.
It was through his friendship with Wallace that his love of Whitman’s poetry grew. The Fellowship gave Sixsmith the opportunity to meet and correspond with those who shared his interests.
Dr John Johnston
Another prominent member of the Fellowship was Doctor John Johnston, a medical practitioner in Bolton who came originally from Annan in Dumfriesshire, Scotland.
Born in 1852, he studied Medicine at Edinburgh University, and began his medical career at West Bromwich Hospital in 1874. He came to Bolton in 1876, and established himself as a General Practitioner.
He played an active part in the development of the St John Ambulance Service in Bolton, for which he provided lectures and instruction.
In 1904, he was appointed Medical Officer of the Kingsgate Institution by Bolton Board of Guardians. During the early years of the First World War, Dr Johnston worked as a Civilian Medical Practitioner at Queen Mary's Military Hospital, Whalley.
In 1917, he was appointed Assistant Medical Officer, later Medical Officer of Fishpool Institution. He retired from this post in 1919, and removed from Bolton to Bispham, near Blackpool. Dr Johnston was prominent in literary circles in Bolton, and a co-founder of the Whitman Fellowship.
Edward Carpenter was a poet, writer, and campaigner, born in Brighton in 1844 and first visited the group in 1891.
Carpenter's friendship with Sixsmith began in the early 1890s the men were correspondents for over 40 years, and Sixsmith was a regular visitor to Millthorpe, the house Carpenter had in Derbyshire.
Other visitors included John Bruce and Katharine Glasier, writer and scholar, John Addington Symonds.
Many of Whitman’s friends also corresponded with the Bolton Fellowship such as John Burroughs, a naturalist and poet, Dr Richard Maurice Bucke, official biographer of Whitman, and Horace Traubel, author and writer.
Members of the Bolton group also had close contacts with a number of leading political and literary figures including Edward Carpenter, an English socialist, reformer and writer, John Bruce Glasier and his wife Katherine (nee Conway) and Keir Hardie, the Scottish Socialist and Labour Leader.
The Whitman collection includes publications by these individuals as well as correspondence with them.
Local Celebrations of Whitman's Life and Work
The most important day in the calendar of the Bolton Fellowship was Walt Whitman’s birthday, the 31 May, which was usually celebrated with an open air tea party and toasts from Whitman’s Loving Cup (presented to the group in 1894).
The group also wore a sprig of lilac in their buttonholes to remember Whitman as this was his favourite flower.
James Wallace died in 1926 but the Bolton Fellowship continued to meet into the 1950s, largely through the influence of Wallace’s adopted daughter, friend and housekeeper Minnie Whiteside and John Ormrod of Walker Fold.
In recent years the Fellowship has been revived and the celebration of 31 May and the love of Whitman and his writing continues.
In 2008 the Whitman Fellowship celebrated 25 years of continued meetings.
Events will be take place annually in and around Bolton during the weekend of Whitman’s birthday.
The Whitman Collection
Bolton Archive and Local Studies Service continue to collect significant current publications about Walt Whitman. The collection includes a large number of publications by and about the poet.
Correspondents include Whitman’s close friends Horace Traubel and Dr R. M. Bucke. Other records relating to the group are the papers of Dr John Johnston, James Wallace, Edward Carpenter, Fred Nightingale and John Ormrod.
Mazinaw Rock in Bon Echo Park, Ontario, Canada was dedicated to Walt Whitman to celebrate the Centenary of his birth in 1919. Flora Denison (nee Macdonald) and her husband purchased the Bon Echo Inn in 1910.
Horace Traubel attended the dedication but died soon after on 3 Sept 1919.
A few days earlier he had been looking through the window at the granite rock and had a vision of Walt Whitman who spoke to him but Traubel could not understand what the poet was saying.
Traubel is buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden close by Whitman’s tomb.
When Dr Bucke visited Bolton in 1891 he brought with him Whitman’s stuffed canary as a gift to Wallace.
The canary was the subject of Whitman’s poem 'My Canary Bird'and was first published in the New York Herald on 2 March 1888:
'My Canary Bird'
Did we count great, O soul, to penetrate the themes of mighty books,
Absorbing deep and full from thoughts, plays, speculations?
But now from thee to me, caged bird, to feel thy joyous warble,
Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long forenoon,
Is it not just as great, O soul?
Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892)