Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 29 December 1879
Date: December 29, 1879
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.
Notes for this letter were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977).
Location: Charles Sixsmith Collection at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester
Whitman Archive ID: man.00019
Contributors to digital file: Eder Jaramillo, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Alicia Meyer, Stefan Schöberlein, and Nicole Gray
Dec 29, 1879
A friend of yours in Boston sends through me a little New Years gift.1 It comes from a good fellow. I wish I could duplicate it. I went over to Boston to the Holmes2 breakfast & had a pleasant time, I saw Emerson & spoke with him. He seemed to grope about in his mind for some clew as to who I was, but I hardly think he placed me, though I told him the names of my books. There seems to be a fearful chasm in his mind & he is hardly able to bridge it over, in conversation. He does not remember the name of his own State. Whittier3 was standing by him & hearing my name, said to Emerson, "oh! thee knows him" with much emphasis. I then spoke to Whittier: he seemed to know me well & said he had read all I had published & was complimentary. Emerson is thin & sharp & his hair is about gone. He seemed to eat well & to enjoy the fun. He wears the same look as of old. Holmes greeted me very heartily & said many pleasant things to me. Fields4 was very cordial & wanted me to stay at his house, a Mrs Fairchilds asked to be introduced to me to tell me how much she admired you & your poems &c. I went out to Arlington & saw Trowbridge5 He is well & made many inquiries about you. He has several children by his second wife, & they have a pleasant home.—I am making trips to N.Y. now adays to be treated for my arm & hand. The Doctor says it is Neuritis, inflammation of the nerves of the arm. He cauterizes my back & arm with a red hot piece of platinum. I go again in the morning & shall stay down several days. The rest are all well here. I send the baby's picture taken in October. He runs all about now & begins to talk; Smith & his family are well. Mother mends a little. We have had a touch of winter here, & the river is frozen over, but to-day it is thawing again. Write, I hope you are coming East soon.
With much love from us all & a happy new year to you,
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. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809–1894) was a Bostonian author, physician, and lecturer. One of the Fireside Poets, he was a good friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as John Burroughs. Towards Whitman's poetry, Holmes remained ambivalent. He married Amelia Lee Jackson in 1840 and they had three children, including the later Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. For more information, see "Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1809-1894)," (Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, eds. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings [New York: Garland Publishing, 1998], 280). [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. Likely James T. Fields (1817–1881), who had succeeded James Russell Lowell as editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1861 and held the position until 1871. [back]
5. John Townsend Trowbridge (1827–1916) was a novelist, poet, author of juvenile stories, and anti-slavery reformer. Though Trowbridge became familiar with Whitman's poetry in 1855, he did not meet Whitman until 1860, when the poet was in Boston overseeing the Thayer and Eldridge edition of Leaves of Grass. For several weeks in 1863, Trowbridge stayed with Whitman in Washington, D.C., along with John Burroughs and William D. O'Connor. [back]