Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 21 December 1886

Date: December 21, 1886

Whitman Archive ID: yal.00290

Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. 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: Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

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West Park N. Y.
Dec. 21, 1886

Dear Walt:

I recd your card yesterday, & also the English paper.1 This morning Doctor Bucke2 sends me Williams3 letter. It makes me groan in spirit to think of Williams condition. But he evidently exagerates it somewhat, for this letter shows streaks of the old fire.4 'Tis a pity he sits down & lets this thing creep over him. He could do much to fight it off, or keep it at bay, if he would make the effort you have made, or if he would take a sea voyage. I think I must go to W. this winter & see him. I have some notion of going south to get a glimpse of the tropics.

I like your Lippincott paper;5 it is very dignified & impressive, & contains many very effective sentences. I am so glad you are writing again. My own health is pretty good. I think I have been much benefited the past fall by drinking vichy water. It has reduced my weight about 10 per cent. My belly has gone away as if I had been confined. It might be good for you. It is good for those who make too much blood & fat. It reduces & thins the blood, &, with me, it corrects the too much uric acid. I am eating but two meals a day, the last at 2 1/2 p.m. I sleep much better for it.

The Quarterly Review article to which O'C. refers I have read.6 It is very fine, many strong & penetrating things said about you. I should like to know who wrote it. It is in the same number that poor Gosse7 gets such a terrible cutting up. The New Zealanders book I had not heard of.8

Your book will doubtless have a checkered career in the future as it has had in the past, but I have no more doubt that it is one of the few immortal books than I have of my own existence. The world can never long pass it by. If it suffers centuries of eclipse & neglect it is bound to come up again.

Study into the causes of your bad spells & I believe you may master them, or mitigate them. The bowells are the seat of the difficulty with you, I believe. Dr Bucke says he is well, & lecturing on insanity to medical students.9 I enclose O'C.'s letter.

With much 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. Burroughs is referring to Whitman's letter of December 19, 1886. It is unclear what paper Burroughs refers to. [back]

2. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. 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]

4. Burroughs is probably referring to William D. O'Connor's letter to Whitman of December 10, 1886, which the poet apparently forwarded. In the letter, O'Connor laments: "The difficulty of managing pen and ink is indescribable, and only equalled by the difficulty of putting even the simplest expressions together. I begin to fear that paralysis is not far off. I move about with slowness and difficulty. But worst of all is the horrible deadness of the mind. I put in an appearance every day at the office, but it is a long time since I have been able to do anything." [back]

5. Burroughs is referring to "My Book and I," which appeared in the January 1887 issue of the magazine. [back]

6. "American Poets," in the October number of the British Quarterly Review. O'Connor describes it as "disfigured by a few lines, but as a whole it is a glorious tribute, and full of splendid and wholehearted ardor." [back]

7. Sir Edmund William Gosse (1849–1928), English poet and author of Father and Son (a memoir published in 1907), had written to Whitman on December 12, 1873: "I can but thank you for all that I have learned from you, all the beauty you have taught me to see in the common life of healthy men and women, and all the pleasure there is in the mere humanity of other people" (see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, June 1, 1888). Gosse reviewed Two Rivulets in "Walt Whitman's New Book," The Academy, 9 (24 June 1876), 602–603, and visited Whitman in 1885 (see Whitman's letter inviting Gosse to visit on December 31, 1884, Gosse's December 29, 1884 letter to Whitman, and The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller [New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977], 3:384 n80). In a letter to Richard Maurice Bucke on October 31, 1889, Whitman characterized Gosse as "one of the amiable conventional wall-flowers of literature." For more about Gosse, see Jerry F. King, "Gosse, Sir Edmund (1849–1928)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. It is unclear what books O'Connor included with his letter, but one appears to be "the New Zealand professor's book" that O'Connor described in his letter to Whitman of December 10, 1886. The "professor" is likely John Macmillan Brown (1845–1935) of New Zealand's Canterbury College, who visited Whitman in 1884. It is unclear what the title of the publication is but it was apparently reviewed in London's The Nation in the early 1880s. [back]

9. Discussing the letter with Horace Traubel, Whitman responded: "John was then, is now, about right in saying the bowels are the seat of the difficulty, but he was, he is wrong, if he says the bowels are the origin of the difficulty. There's something back of all that in my history, physiology, accounting for the hole I've got myself into. I have lived along pretty conservative lines now for years, but in spite of that I'm slowly slipping to the foot of the hill: it seems as though nothing would stay, however some things might or do delay, my descent" (With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, February 11, 1889). [back]


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