Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 21 February 1889

Date: February 21, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: yal.00291

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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "Add Symonds Rudolf Schmidt Edw. Carpenter sent big books, too," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Caterina Bernardini, Stefan Schöberlein, and Stephanie Blalock

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314 Mill St
Po'keepsie N.Y.
Feb 21, 891

Dear Walt:

Your letter was very welcome to me.2 Your hand-write looks as clear & strong as ever. I hope it really denotes that you are much better. The other night I read a long time in your "Specimen Days"3 & got myself into a very melancholy state of mind thinking of the old times, of all that Washington life of O'Connor4 & of that which never can come back. My life now seems very pale & poor compared with those days. There are but two things now from which I derive any satisfaction, Julian5 & that bit of land up there on the river bank where I indulge my inherited love for the soil. I have no comrades here. I probably never shall find any more. Julian is developing into a very happy, intelligent boy, full of enthusiasms, full of curiosity, & is about my only companion. He goes to school here & carries himself well.

I am greatly distressed at what you tell me about O'Connor, and one must stand by powerless to render any aid! I hope I can see my way to go to W6 again to see him.

I shall not stay here in P. much longer. I am getting enough of boarding house life. I shall go back home by March, but Mrs B7 & Julian will stay here. I had a letter from Horace8 this morning. The book may be sent to me at West Park, & let me thank you in advance for it. Tell Horace the essays I am thinking of putting in a vol. are old ones that have appeared in the magazines from time to time. What of Gilchrist9? When you write again tell me what you know of his doings. Bright days here & sharp, with ice boating in the river.

With the 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. In his note, written in blue pencil at the top of the first page of the letter from Burroughs, Whitman is referring to the gift copies of his Complete Poetry & Prose that he was sending to his friends (John Addington Symonds, Rudolf Schmidt, and Edward Carpenter). [back]

2. The only extant letter from Whitman to Burroughs preceding the present letter is the poet's letter of February 8, 1889[back]

3. The first issue of Whitman's Specimen Days and Collect was published by the Philadelphia firm of Rees Welsh and Company in 1882. The second issue was published by David McKay. Many of the autobiographical notes, sketches, and essays that focus on the poet's life during and beyond the Civil War had been previously published in periodicals or in Memoranda During the War (1875–1876). For more information on Specimen Days, see George Hutchinson and David Drews "Specimen Days [1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. 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]

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

6. O'Connor lived in Washington, D.C. [back]

7. 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]

8. 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]

9. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857–1914), son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, was an English painter and editor of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887). For more information, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden (1857–1914)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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