Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 27 February 1890

Date: February 27, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01175

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

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

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West Park N.Y.1
Feb. 27, 1890

Dear Walt:

Here I am back from Pokeepsie in my little study to-night with a maple & hickory fire burning in the open fire place & thinking of you. This little shanty is a real solitude, cut off from the house & standing alone here on the brow of the hill. A wild rabbit lives under the floor & the wild wood mice scamper over head. But few of my friends have visited me here, but here I sit by my open fire & have long long thoughts of them. How I make them come trooping in. How many times have I planted you there in my big chair by the window, or here in front of the open fire & talked the old talk with you. Alas, alas, that I should never see you here in the body as well as in the spirit. I talk at O'Connors2 picture & think of him too so often, the brilliant one whom I shall see no more. How sacred is memory! as we grow old how much he lives in the past, how trivial & cheap seems the present. A tender & beautiful light fills my mind when I think of those years in Washington when we were all there; a light I know that never was on sea or land. How solemn & pathetic, as well as beautiful it must seem to you, considering all you passed through there!

Chas. Eldridge3 sends me his wedding cards from California. I am glad he is married & hope he is happy & prosperous. I must write to him. Give him my love if you write him. I think I told you we were housekeeping in Pokeepsie for the winter. Mrs B4 & Julian5 are there now, but I am back on my farm & at work for the past two days, & I find it much better than hanging about the miserable little city. My winter has been flat stale & unprofitable. I mean to delve the earth with vigor now to make up for it. I have seen nobody nor been anywhere. Should probably have gone to W. had not wife been sick for 5 weeks with the gripe. I get a glimpse of you now & then in the paper. I hope you are comfortable. Do drop me a card if you can, or6 ask Trauble7 to write me. Our winter has been a perpetual spring as I suppose yours has.

With the old love
J Burroughs

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 decades-long 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. Whitman enclosed this letter with his February 28–March 1, 1890, letter to the Canadian physician and psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke. [back]

2. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903) was one half of the Boston-based abolitionist publishing firm Thayer and Eldridge, who issued the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In December 1862, on his way to find his injured brother George in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Whitman stopped in Washington and encountered Eldridge, who had become a clerk in the office of the army paymaster, Major Lyman Hapgood. Eldridge helped Whitman gain employment in Hapgood's office. For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge, see David Breckenridge Donlon, "Thayer, William Wilde (1829–1896) and Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Ursula North Burroughs (1836–1917) was John Burroughs's wife. Ursula and John were married on September 12, 1857. The couple maintained a small farm overlooking the Hudson River in West Park, Ulster County. They adopted a son, Julian, at two months of age. It was only later revealed that John himself was the biological father of Julian. [back]

5. Julian Burroughs (1878–1954), the only son of John and Ursula Burroughs, later became a landscape painter, writer, and photographer. [back]

6. After the word "or," Burroughs continued the letter vertically in the left margin. [back]

7. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the late 1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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