Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 24 August 1879

Date: August 24, 1879

Editorial note: The annotation, "See notes Dec 7th 1888," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01134

Contributors to digital file: Alicia Bones, Vince Moran, Eder Jaramillo, Nicole Gray, and Stefan Schöberlein



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Roxbury, N.Y.
Aug 24th, 1879

Dear Walt:

Your letter came the other day, & with the enclosure was very welcome.1 The papers came also. I am glad you keep well. I wish for you here daily, it is so cool & salubrious. I imagined you off to some of the watering places. I was sorry I could not bring about the arrangement to have you come up to our place, but Emma has not been very well, & though she said yes, I thought she was a little reluctant, and our own household economy was deranged by the cuttings up & running off of the girl. But I shall not rest till I have you up there.

I was much interested in the letters you enclosed. I must write to the Gilchrists.

I made the trip down the Delaware the last of June, all alone; went only to Hancock on the Erie Road, about 50 miles. Had a pretty good time, tho' lonely. I was not quite a week on the river. I slept in my boat or under it all the time. The next week after I returned home I wrote up my trip for the magazine, using the health & strength I gained on the voyage. Since I have been here I have written an article on Nature & the Poets, showing when our poets trip on their wood lore & natural history, & where they hit the mark. I catch them all napping. Emerson, Bryant, Whittier, Longfellow, &c. I shall have something to say about you, with extracts, but I cannot catch you in any mistake, as I wish I could, for that is my game. I wish I could also find a slip in Shakspeare, or Tennyson, but I cannot according to my knowledge except where Shakspear follows the unscientific thought of his times, as in his treatment of the honey bee.

Yesterday I wrote a sort of Pastoral Letter to The Tribune, but I doubt if they find it worth while, & it is no matter.

I will send you the proof of the article on the poets, before it goes into the magazine.

There are two articles in the August Appleton's Journal that are worth glancing over, Arnold on Wordsworth & Earl D. on Moose Hunting.2 What simple good hearty fellows those English earls must be; not a false or conventional note in this one.

The baby is doing well & completely fills my heart. Wife is about as usual.

I find I cannot read Whittier3 & Longfellow4 & Lowell5 with any satisfaction. Your poems spoil me for any but the greatest. Coming from them to you is like coming from a hothouse to the shore or the mountain. I know this is so & is no pre-determined partiality of mine.

Faithfully
John Burroughs


Notes:

1. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a lifelong correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

2. These pieces are Matthew Arnold's "Wordsworth" and "Moose-Hunting in Canada" by the Earl of Dunraven, Windham Wyndham-Quin. See Appletons' Journal: A Magazine of General Literature, 7.2 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, August 1879). [back]

3. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) earned fame as a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery. As a poet, he employed traditional forms and meters, and, not surprisingly, he was not an admirer of Whitman's unconventional prosody. For Whitman's view of Whittier, see various comments throughout the nine volumes of With Walt Whitman in Camden (various publishers: 1906–1996) and Whitman's "My Tribute to Four Poets" in Specimen Days[back]

4. In his time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was both a highly popular and highly respected American poet. His The Song of Hiawatha, published the same year as Leaves of Grass, enjoyed sales never reached by Whitman's poetry. When Whitman met Longfellow in June 1876, he was unimpressed: "His manners were stately, conventional—all right but all careful . . . he did not branch out or attract" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906], 1:129–130). [back]

5. James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), one of Whitman's famous poetic contemporaries, was committed to conventional poetic form, which was clearly at odds with Whitman's more experimental form. Still, as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, he published Whitman's "Bardic Symbols," probably at Ralph Waldo Emerson's suggestion. Lowell later wrote a tribute to Abraham Lincoln titled "Commemoration Ode," which has often, since its publication, been contrasted with Whitman's own tribute, "O Captain! My Captain!" [back]


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