Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 17 February 1891

Date: February 17, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01178

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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "see notes | Feb. 18, '91," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, Alex Ashland, Zainab Saleh, and Stephanie Blalock

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West Park N.Y.1
Feb 17, 1891

Dear Walt

I was very glad to get your card,2 but sorry to hear you are under the weather. I trust the spring which is now near will set you up again. I keep pretty well, as do wife3 & Julian.4 We have been here all winter. I have been busy with my pen, turning out pot-boilers, nothing else I shall keep an eye out for your N.A. article.5 I see it in the reading rooms in Po'keepsie. I have been sending some things to the Independent & to the Christian Union at the request of the editors. It is surprising how much heresy these papers can stand. I think they secretly like it. I see nothing in the literary horizon, no coming poet or philosopher My opinion is that life is becoming pretty thin. Our civilization runs all to head & crudeness, no character, no heart in anything now adays Most of the magazine poetry is utterly barren. It is like poor mortar—too much sand for the lime.

I am in a hurry to see spring. I want to taste the earth again. The ground here has been deeply covered since early in Dec. Rain & fog to-day.

With much love
John 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. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle St | Camden | N.J. It is postmarked: West Park | Feb | 17 | 1891 | N.Y.; Camden, N.J. | Feb | 18 | 12 M | 1891 | [illegible]. [back]

2. This letter may not survive. [back]

3. 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]

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

5. On October 3, 1890, Whitman had accepted an invitation to write for The North American Review. He sent them "Old Poets," the first of a two-part prose contribution, on October 9. "Old Poets" was published in the November 1890 issue of the magazine, and Whitman's "Have We a National Literature?" was published in the March 1891 issue. [back]


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