Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 13 January 1888

Date: January 13, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01226

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.

Notes for this letter were created by Whitman Archive staff and/or were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock

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West Park N.Y.
Jany 13, 1888

Dear Walt:

Quite a long letter you wrote me:1 many thanks for it, & for all the items of news it contained. I am glad Abagail2 called to see you. I urged her to do so weeks ago. I am very sorry you do not get out anymore. Your right not to surrender in that way without a struggle.

I keep pretty well, except a very bad cold lately, but the winter has been a vacant unprofitable one to me so far. My domestic skies are not pleasant & I seem depressed & restless most of the time. I am interested in that Ernest Rhys3—wish you had told me more about him. I should like to meet him if I know where he was to be seen. I saw an abstract of a lecture of his on the New Poetry, some months ago, that contained an admirable statement about your poetry. I will go & hear him lecture if he speaks in N.Y.

Two of the poems you enclosed were new to me. I liked them much. Your one to Whittier4 was very happy.5 A steady snow fall here to-day, the river a white plain. I dislike the winters more & more & shall not try to spend another in this solitude. Indeed I am thinking strongly of selling my place. I am sick of the whole business of housekeeping. If it was not for Julian6 I should not hesitate a moment. J. goes to school & is a bright happy boy, very eager for knowledge, & with a quick intelligence. He alone makes life tolerable to me.

With the old old 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. Burroughs is probably referring to Whitman's letter of January 7, 1888[back]

2. "Abagail" was Burroughs's sister. Whitman noted the visit in his letter of January 7, 1888[back]

3. Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. 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 the poet's numerous comments throughout the nine volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden (various publishers: 1906–1996) and Whitman's "My Tribute to Four Poets," in Specimen Days (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882–'83), 180–181. [back]

5. Walt Whitman's greeting to Whittier ("As the Greek's Signal Flame") appeared in the New York Herald on December 15 and in Munyon's Illustrated World in January 1888. Whitman received $10 from the latter (Whitman's Commonplace Book; Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). Whittier wrote to Whitman on January 13, 1888 to thank him for the greeting. [back]

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


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