Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, [29 September 1878]
Date: September 29, 1878
Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, Specimen Days & Collect (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882–1883), 108. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: This is a partial transcription. The location of the original manuscript is unknown.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.07369
Contributors to digital file: Ryan Furlong, Ian Faith, and Nicole Gray
S.1 was away when your picture came, attending his sick brother, Charles—who has since died—an event that has sadden'd2 me much. Charlie was younger than S., and a most attractive young fellow. He work'd at my father's, and had done so for two years. He was about the best specimen of a young country farm-hand I ever knew. You would have loved him. He was like one of your poems. With his great strength, his blond hair, his cheerfulness and contentment, his universal good will, and his silent manly ways, he was a youth hard to match. He was murder'd by an old doctor. He had typhoid fever, and the old fool bled him twice. He lived to wear out the fever, but had not strength to rally. He was out of his head nearly all the time. In the morning, as he died in the afternoon, S. was standing over him, when Charlie put up his arms around S.'s neck, and pull'd his face down and kiss'd him. S. said he knew then the end was near. (S. stuck to him day and night to the last.) When I was home in August, Charlie was cradling on the hill, and it was a picture to see him walk through the grain. All work seem'd play to him. He had no vices, any more than Nature has, and was belov'd by all who knew him.
I have written thus to you about him, for such young men belong to you; he was of your kind. I wish you could have known him. He had the sweetness of a child, and the strength and courage and readiness of a young Viking. His mother and father are poor; they have a rough, hard farm. His mother works in the field with her husband when the work presses. She has had twelve children.
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).
1. Smith Caswell was one of Burroughs's hired hands (Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades [Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931], 178). After Burroughs informed Whitman of the death of Caswell's brother, Charles, the poet copied verbatim Burroughs's sketch of the young man in "Three Young Men's Deaths," printed in Cope's Tobacco Plant and later in Specimen Days (157–158). Whitman sent the article to John Fraser, the editor of Cope's Tobacco Plant, on November 27, through Josiah Child (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). See also the letter from Whitman to John Burroughs of June 11, 1879. [back]
2. This abbreviation of "ed," adopted by Whitman throughout Specimen Days, probably did not appear in Burroughs's original letter. [back]