ON A SPRING EVENING in 1887, Dr John Johnston and Mr J.W. Wallace of Bolton laboured together over a letter to Walt Whitman, who was about to celebrate his sixty-eighth birthday. 'Dear Walt,' they boldly began--then, appalled at their temerity, hastened to explain:
In no less familiar or colder
terms can we bring ourselves
to address you, the most loved
of friends, though such a
salutation from strangers to
anyone but yourself would
seem an impertinence.
To their surprise, the ailing old poet responded promptly and warmly to their birthday greeting. Thus began an extraordinary relationship between a group of unknown Boltonians and America's greatest poet. During the few years between Johnston and Wallace's first greeting and Whitman s death in 1892, they would exchange hundreds of letters; Johnston and Wallace would both make pilgrimages to Camden, New Jersey, to visit Whitman; and Whitman would come to regard the group of friends gathered around Wallace as his most devoted readers. After the poet's death, the Bolton Whitmanites formed an important part of an international movement that promoted Walt Whitman not as poet but as prophet equal in significance to Jesus Christ. Moreover, through Wallace's involvement with the Independent Labour Party, they helped to establish Whitman as a patron saint of British socialism.
When Johnston and Wallace posted their first letter to Whitman they could not have foreseen the intensity of the relationship that would develop. After the two friends visited the poet in Camden in 1890 and 1891, Whitman began writing to them almost daily, accompanying his letters with clippings, books, and photographs. 'What staunch tender fellows those Englishmen are!' he wrote to a friend. 'I doubt if ever a fellow had such a spendid emotional send-back response as I have had f'm those Lancashire chaps under the lead of Dr. J. and J.W.W.--it cheers and nourishes my very heart.'
'It surprises me that you should be so taken with those Bolton folks,' sniffed young Herbert Gilchrist, scion of a distinguished British literary family, 'they're not famous in England at all.' Whitman roared back at him: 'It surprises you does it? Well I've had my bellyful of famous people! Thank God they're just nobody at all, like all people who are worthwhile.'
The Bolton nobodies were a group of men originally drawn together by their friendship with the charismatic J.W. Wallace, an architect's assistant. After the death of his mother in 1885, when he was thirty-one, Wallace experienced a spiritual transformation, or 'illumination' as he termed it. Informal meetings to discuss literature and ideas, which Wallace and his associates had long enjoyed, began to take place on a regular basis. Friends 'have been in the habit of coming to our house on Monday evenings for reading and discussion', Wallace wrote in May 1886 to John Johnston, an acquaintance with literary inclinations. 'Next Monday is Whitman's birthday, so I propose having a "Whitman evening" and shall be glad if you will join us.' Wallace could not have sent his invitation to a more appropriate person. Johnston, a young Scottish doctor in Bolton, had read Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855) during a spiritual crisis and regarded the author as his saviour. Johnston dashed off poems and song lyrics as effortlessly as he wielded a stethescope, and within a short time he had helped to attract additional young men to the Monday night meetings at Wallace's home on Eagle Street, and had dubbed their gatherings the 'Eagle Street College'. Johnston delighted in writing lyrics in comically thick Scots or Lancashire dialects, designed to be sung to familiar tunes. One of his earliest, 'The College Battle Song', was a birthday tribute to Wallace:
Braw chiefs who dae haud WALLACE
Gude freens than wham nane love
Welcome gie him, fealty swear,
On this auspicious day. …