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Burroughs and Whitman: Comrades in Letters and Life

By Edward J. Renehan Jr.

Whenever John Burroughs spoke of his natal region in the watershed of the East Branch of the Delaware River amid the Catskill Mountains of New York, he referred to the place by its ancient aboriginal name: Pepacton. So too did Walt Whitman insist on describing his boyhood home of Long Island by the title local tribes had given it long before: Paumanok. But the two men had far more than this in common when they first met in Washington, DC, during the autumn of 1863.

Eighteen years the senior of Burroughs, the 44-year-old Whitman had several editions of Leaves of Grass behind him and was working temporarily as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He’d previously been employed in New York and Brooklyn as a teacher, journalist and writer of fiction. (Whitman’s temperance novel of 1842, Franklin Evans, brought him brief notoriety, although he himself later condemned it as “damned rot.”)<supp>1</supp> During off-hours, Whitman volunteered in some of the many military hospitals situated about Washington. Walking dank and blood-soaked halls, the unostentatious poet devotedly tended the wounded and dying. At the same time, he gathered the myriad impressions that would wind up as poems in Drum Taps and as prose in Memoranda During the War.

To Burroughs, Whitman resembled an incredibly well-spoken lumberjack or ditch digger. Burroughs told his wife Ursula that Whitman sported the look of a common farmer but boasted “the manner and eloquence of genius and a look of infinite good nature.”<supp>2</supp> Years later, long after Whitman was dead, Burroughs told a correspondent: “One thing I plume myself upon in this world, and that is that I saw the greatness of the poet from the first – that no disguise of the common, the near, the rough, the ‘tramp,’ could conceal from me the divinity that was back of it all, and challenged me to the contest. Familiar intercourse with him did not blur this impression. That head, that presence, those words of love and wisdom convinced like Nature herself. I pitied those who saw him, and yet saw him not.”<supp>3</supp>

The 26-year-old Burroughs was already an adoring fan of Whitman’s even before he met the man. For most of the previous year, while working as an itinerant schoolteacher in New York State, he’d delighted in what he considered to be the revelation of Whitman’s Leaves. During the autumn of 1862, Burroughs had made the acquaintance of poet and farmer Myron Benton (28 years old in 1862).<supp>4</supp> At Benton’s 800-acre farm called “Troutbeck” (situated in Amenia, NY, 25 miles west/northwest of Poughkeepsie), the two men devoured a recent edition of Whitman’s book. By the time they were done reading, they had come to hail Whitman as the embodiment of the intellectually self-reliant, originally-American artist long called for by their shared hero Emerson. <supp>5</supp>

Thus, when Burroughs met Whitman in the nation’s capital city, he approached him as a master. Burroughs fell easily into the role of earnest and impressionable student thirsting for knowledge. Just as easily, Whitman adopted the guise of guru. Burroughs’s face, Whitman told a mutual friend, “is like a field of wheat.”<supp>6</supp> One imagines the analogy Whitman was trying to draw: the naive young man had a countenance full of wide-eyed, innocent expectation – one quick with a response to the slightest emotional or philosophical breeze. “The more I see of Walt, the more I like him,” Burroughs wrote Benton. “He is by far the wisest man I have ever met. There is nothing more to be said after he gives his views. It is as if Nature herself had spoken. And so kind, sympathetic, charitable, humane, tolerant a man I did not suppose was possible.” <supp>7</supp>

Shortly before arriving in Washington, Burroughs had begun to write seriously about the birds and other aspects of woodland nature. Subsequently, Whitman did a great deal to help the young man develop and codify his approach to this type of literature. Whitman told Burroughs he believed that natural history prose, to be true to life, had to be inspired with a vision akin to poetry. There should be, said Whitman, an intuitive perception of truth. Pure scientific observation was not enough. The most important discoveries in all the sciences seemed to Whitman to be born of what he called “a kind of winged, ecstatic reasoning, quite above and beyond the real facts” of nature but based on them all the same. Thereafter, Burroughs practiced diligently at his craft as an artist committed to discerning and describing the wild. He would “liberate the birds from the scientists,” he wrote Benton. He would become an “Audubon of prose.”<supp>8</supp>

For the rest of his life, Burroughs held fast to Whitman’s dictum that it was impossible to adequately describe the full power, beauty, and meaning of nature with the cold prose and calculated thinking of strict scientific summation. The eye of the painter, the ear of the poet – these things were necessary to truly grasp the natural world. With Whitman’s prodding, Burroughs worked hard at developing literature that was in tune with the facts of the wild while also representing his own poetic vision of the life abroad in field and forest. For several years, Whitman read and edited the prose of his young devotee. He would eventually even supply the title for Burroughs’s first published collection of nature essays (Wake Robin, 1871). “As important as Emerson and Thoreau were to John Burroughs as a literary naturalist and critic,” observes James Perrin Warren in his superb John Burroughs and the Place of Nature, “Walt Whitman exercised the longest-lasting and most profound influence on his career as a writer.”<supp>9</supp>

Burroughs returned Whitman’s attentions, in part, by serving as the poet’s resident ornithologist. During a visit to his native Catskills in the summer of 1865, Burroughs heard the mournful song of the hermit thrush while hiking on Batavia Mountain. Returning to DC, Burroughs found Whitman “deeply interested in what I tell him of the hermit thrush, and he says he has largely used the information I have given him in one of his principal poems.”<supp>10</supp> The bird subsequently turned up in Whitman’s now famous elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat ...

Years later, more of Burroughs’s observations of the birds found their way into Whitman’s poetry. During one of several visits to Burroughs’s Hudson River farm (called “Riverby,” to which John and Ursula moved from DC in 1873), Whitman ran across the following entry in Burroughs’s journal for January 29, 1878.<supp>11</supp> “Saw three eagles today,” Burroughs had written. “Two were sailing round and round, over the river, by the dock. They approached each other and appeared to clasp claws, then swung round and round several times ...”<supp>12</supp> Shortly, Whitman turned the image of the talon-clasped birds into a brief but sexually-charged poem (“A Dalliance of Eagles”) which he featured in all subsequent editions of the Leaves.

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)
Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance 
 of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward
 falling,
Till o’er the river pois’d, the twain yet one, a moment’s lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons 
 loosing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate 
 diverse flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.

Burroughs also served Whitman, from early in their acquaintanceship to long after the poet’s death, as biographer and promoter. JB’s debut book, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867), was the very first extensive biographical and critical study of the writer. A self-published affair, the text was heavily influenced (and in part even ghost-written) by Whitman himself: an exercise in literary propaganda. (Decades later, Burroughs candidly admitted Whitman’s involvement in the writing.)

Throughout the long years, as his own fame spread, Burroughs was to regularly publish concerning Whitman and defend him before all detractors, of which there were more than a few. During 1882, when the Authors Club of New York was first being organized, Burroughs refused an invitation to be among the charter members when he learned Whitman would not be invited to join. Five years later, Burroughs was one of a number of established writers – including Mark Twain and Richard Watson Gilder – who financed a lecture by Whitman at the Madison Square Theater in New York.

By that time the impoverished, invalid poet was living in a squalid house on Mickle Street in the unlovely city of Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Burroughs visited on occasion, but he found himself not caring for the sycophants with which Whitman surrounded himself as he approached the end of his life. “Do the disciples of Whitman, who would make a cult of him,” Burroughs asked, “live in the spirit of the whole, as Whitman himself tried to live? – Whitman, who said that there may be any number of Supremes, and that the chief lesson to be learned under the master was how to destroy him?”<supp>13</supp> Burroughs declined to attend when a seventieth birthday dinner was held for Whitman in Camden during May of 1889. “I had not grown cold toward him, but I saw less of him, and was not so active a disciple as I had been. I had absorptions of my own. Then the crowd that surrounded him was not altogether to my liking.”<supp>14</supp> Two years later, Burroughs sent Whitman a postcard on the occasion of his seventy-second birthday: “Walt: I keep your birthday pruning my vineyard and in reading an hour from your poems under my fig tree. Will let you eat your dinner in peace, as I shall want to do if I ever reach my seventy-second.”<supp>15</supp>

Burroughs went to visit Whitman over Christmas of 1891, at which time the poet had obviously begun to fail. “Walt on the bed with eyes closed,” Burroughs wrote in his journal for Christmas Eve, “but he knows me and speaks my name as of old, and kisses me. He asks me to sit beside him awhile. I do so, holding his hand. He coughs feebly, asks about my family and sends his best love to wife and Julian. Gives me two copies of his complete poems just out. He tells me where to find them. After a while I go out for fear of fatiguing him. He says, ‘It is all right, John,’ evidently referring to his approaching end.”<supp>16</supp>

Whitman died on March 25th, 1892. Burroughs traveled immediately to Camden, where he joined painter Thomas Eakins, writer Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathaniel), and others as an honorary pallbearer. Thereafter, in 1896, Burroughs published Whitman, A Study – a spirited argument for Leaves of Grass as a major contribution not only to American literature, but to all literature in the English language.

One year prior to the publication of the Whitman book, Burroughs had built himself a little cabin retreat about two miles inland from Riverby, which he called “Slabsides.” The cabin was in a woods where he’d sometimes taken Whitman during the latter’s visits to the farm.<supp>17</supp> Nearby, on Black Creek, was a waterfall Whitman had immortalized in a short piece of prose (“An Ulster County Waterfall”) published as part of Specimen Days.

I jot this mem. in a wild scene of woods and hills, where we have come to visit a waterfall. I never saw finer or more copious hemlocks, many of them large, some old and hoary. Such a sentiment to them, secretive, shaggy—what I call weather-beaten and let-alone—a rich underlay of ferns, yew sprouts and mosses, beginning to be spotted with the early summer wild-flowers. Enveloping all, the monotone and liquid gurgle from the hoarse impetuous copious fall—the greenish-tawny, darkly transparent waters, plunging with velocity down the rocks, with patches of milk-white foam—a stream of hurrying amber, thirty feet wide, risen far back in the hills and woods, now rushing with volume—every hundred rods a fall, and sometimes three or four in that distance. A primitive forest, druidical, solitary and savage—not ten visitors a year—broken rocks everywhere—shade overhead, thick underfoot with leaves—a just palpable wild and delicate aroma.

Burroughs took to calling the woods about the cabin “Whitman Land.” Frequently, he brought guests to visit at the spot where Whitman had stood beside the falls. Just as frequently, he read aloud from Whitman’s Leaves, commending it to every and any Slabsides guest. Beginning in 1904, he gave extensive assistance to Bliss Perry, whose seminal Walt Whitman: His Life and Work appeared two years later.

Burroughs died on March 29th, 1921. Not long after, on April 3rd, (which would have been his 84th birthday), he was buried on the Catskills farm where he’d been born. Before the grave was closed, mourners threw a wreath of ivy from Whitman’s tomb down onto the coffin.

Edward J. Renehan Jr. is the author of John Burroughs: An American Naturalist (1992)

Notes:

  1. Michael Feingold. “Drink it Up.” The Village Voice. 4 September 2007.
  2. John Burroughs to Ursula Burroughs. 8 November 1863. Berg Collection, New York Public Library (hereafter Berg).
  3. John Burroughs to Richard Watson Gilder. 2 November 1906. Gilder Papers. New York Historical Society.
  4. Myron Beecher Benton (1834-1902) was born and died at Troutbeck, on the banks of the Webetuck River. His most important, though nevertheless obscure, collection of verse is the posthumously published Songs of the Webetuck (Poughkeepsie, NY: Press of A.V. Haight, 1906). Benton is remembered today less for his poetry than for the company he kept. The last letter Thoreau ever wrote was to Benton.
  5. Troutbeck endures today as a hotel and conference center.
  6. Edward J. Renehan Jr. John Burroughs: An American Naturalist. Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 1998. 74.
  7. John Burroughs to Myron Benton. 9 January 1864. Berg.
  8. John Burroughs to Myron Benton. 16 January 1864. Berg.
  9. James Perrin Warren. John Burroughs and the Place of Nature. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006. 42.
  10. John Burroughs to Myron Benton. 15 September 1865. Berg.
  11. Located in the hamlet of West Park, NY, township of Esopus, Riverby remains in the Burroughs family to the present day. The farm sits on the western shore immediately to the south of the Holy Cross Monastery, directly across the river from the Vanderbilt mansion and Bard Rock in Hyde Park, NY.
  12. John Burroughs Journal. 29 January 1878. Vassar College Special Collections (hereafter Vassar).
  13. John Burroughs. Literary Values. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1902. 136.
  14. John Burroughs to Clara Barrus. 7 March 1906. Berg.
  15. John Burroughs to Walt Whitman. 31 May 1889. Library of Congress.
  16. John Burroughs Journal. 24 December 1891. Vassar.
  17. During one of Whitman’s stays at Riverby in the late 1870s, Burroughs brought the poet by horse and carriage to visit Vassar College.