Selected Criticism

Sarracino, Carmine
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

John Burroughs (1837–1921), the well-known naturalist, writer, and friend of Walt Whitman, built a house with a spectacular view of the Hudson River on nine acres in the Catskill Mountains, about a hundred miles north of Manhattan. He purchased the land in September 1873 and called the home "Riverby" (meaning "by the river" and pronounced "river bee"). Walt Whitman made three trips to Riverby, the last of which, in 1879, he recounted in Specimen Days.

Riverby turned out to be something of a disappointment for Burroughs. He ignored all advice on the house, even disregarding Whitman's recommendation of a carpenter. Burroughs himself was the architect of the stone house, built according to aesthetic principles of environmental harmony.

The house was entirely impractical. Built into a hillside and partly underground, the lower floors remained perpetually dark and damp, and bone-numbingly cold in winter. The absence of water pumps required Burroughs's wife, Ursula, to climb narrow stairways carrying heavy buckets of water for bathing and for house cleaning.

Whitman first visited Riverby for a week in June 1878 to see Burroughs's two-month old son, Julian, who was the offspring of a liaison with an Irish maid employed by a nearby household, although the fact was a closely guarded secret even after John Burroughs's death. Almost two miles from Riverby was a particularly beautiful spot so loved by Whitman that Burroughs referred to it as "The Whitman Land." Burroughs began Whitman: A Study with a reference to a "primitive and secluded" (2) spot which is itself like Whitman in that the poet does not suggest the wild and unkempt as he seems to do to many mistaken readers, but, rightly perceived, Whitman suggests the "cosmic and the elemental" (2). In Specimen Days Whitman described the same spot in an entry entitled "An Ulster County Waterfall," which contains the combination of precise detail along with aesthetic appreciation that characterizes the nature writing of John Burroughs himself.

Indeed, Burroughs and Riverby influenced Whitman in a number of ways. In general, Burroughs heightened Whitman's appreciation for paying close attention to the natural world, for observing and recording exact detail. Specifically, Burroughs's description of the midair mating of eagles, which Burroughs observed while hiking near Riverby and recorded in a journal which Whitman read, inspired Whitman to watch the eagles when he was at Riverby, and culminated in Whitman's "The Dalliance of the Eagles" (1880). Also, even before building Riverby, Burroughs compellingly described the hermit thrush to Whitman, providing Whitman with just the unifying image he needed while writing his long elegy, in 1865, on the death of Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

Burroughs's dissatisfaction with Riverby and his love of "The Whitman Land" led to his building a cabin called "Slabsides" on the spot in 1895. The first chapter of Whitman: A Study and the final revision of the work were completed at Slabsides in 1895–1896.


Barrus, Clara. Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Burroughs, John. Riverby. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1894.

____. Whitman: A Study. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1896.

Renehan, Edward J., Jr. John Burroughs, An American Naturalist. Post Mills, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 1992.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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