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John Burroughs to Walt Whitman, 8 January 1884

 loc.01149.001_large.jpg Dear Walt:

That piece of writing of yours in the last "Critic" is to me very impressive.1 It is seldom you have fallen into such a noble & lofty strain. As I am myself trying to write a little these days, it makes me sad. It is like a great ship that comes to windward of me & takes the breeze out of the sail of my little shallop. I shall have to lay by today & let the impression wear  loc.01149.002_large.jpg off. I think you have hit it exactly with that word physiological. It lets in a flood of light. The whole essay is one to be long conned over.

I went down to N.Y. to hear Arnold2 on Emerson3 Friday night. Curtis4—the pensive Curtis introduced the lecturer. I wonder if you have heard Curtis speak? Tis a pity he is not a little more robust & manly. He fairly leans & languishes on the bosom of the Graces, one after another. Arnold looked hearty & strong & spoke in a foggy, misty English voice, that left the outlining of his sentences pretty  loc.01149.003_large.jpg obscure, but which had a certain charm after all. The lecture contained nothing new. The Tribune report you sent me, is an admirable summary—the pith of the whole lecture. He does not do full justice to Emerson as I hope to show in my essay. At least Emerson can be shorn of these things & left a more impressive figure than Arnold leaves him. He had much to say about Carlyle5 too, but would not place him with the great writers! Because he was more than a great literary man he denied him literary honors. Drop me a line when you feel like it. Winter  loc.01149.004_large.jpg is in full blush up here & the river snores & groans like an uneasy sleeper.

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. "A Backward Glance on My Own Road," The Critic, 4 (5 January 1884), 1–2. [back]
  • 2. The English poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) first came to America on a lecture tour in October, 1883, and remained until March, 1884. He "returned to England confirmed by experience in his conception of the average American as a hard uninteresting type of Philistine." After a second trip to the United States in the summer of 1886, Arnold commented on American life being "uninteresting, so without savour and without depth" (Stuart P. Sherman, Matthew Arnold [Indianapolis, 1917], 46–49). [back]
  • 3. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was an American poet and essayist who began the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature. Having read Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass, Emerson wrote a letter to Whitman, famously pronouncing him to be "at the beginning of a great career." In his response, Whitman eagerly addressed the Concord philosopher as "Master." Whitman published both Emerson's letter and his response in the second edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
  • 4. George William Curtis (1824–1892), the editor of Harper's Monthly, was disliked by Whitman's friends. Curtis was also a New England writer and orator, who had been a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson for some time in the 1840s. [back]
  • 5. Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) was a Scottish writer who wrote frequently on the conflict between scientific changes and the traditional social (often religious) order. For Whitman's writings on Carlyle, see "Death of Thomas Carlyle" and "Carlyle from American Points of View" in Specimen Days (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), 168–170 and 170–178. [back]
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