Introduction: The Manifold Nature Of John Burroughs

By J. D. Schraffenberger​


On a cool and sunny late-September morning in 1889, the hearty fifty-two-year-old John Burroughs arrived at a house on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, to visit his old friend Walt Whitman, who was in the kitchen eating his breakfast of toast and tea. The two men sat together into the afternoon in Whitman’s upstairs den, a chaotic ocean of books, papers, pamphlets, manuscripts scattered all about the floor, the good gray poet ensconced in his armchair amid the dusty clutter. John spoke of his vacation at the Jersey Shore resort Asbury Park, where he’d stayed the previous week with his wife Ursula and young son Julian at the sprawling wood-framed Bristol Hotel on Ocean Avenue. He’d spent most of his time exploring the natural wonders of the beach with Julian; deep in his heart there always beat an awe for the ancientness of the ocean. He’d eaten and slept like a boy there, and gained a pound in weight every day. He looked well and felt well even if he could sense the creeping premonition of a headache coming on.

And Walt looked well, too, though now in his seventy-first year, he said he felt like an old hulk, hauled up on the shore, in the mud, damaged badly. But he looked much better than he had a year ago when he seemed older, feebler, nearing death. John surmised back then that his friend had made up his mind to give up the fight at last and was only awaiting the end. But he’d lived on another year and maybe, John thought, stood a fair chance of surviving everyone yet. 

What else did these two old friends talk about? Many things swirled around John Burroughs’s mind. Perhaps John mentioned that earlier in the month his wife’s father Uriah North had died at eighty-eight years of age. He’d been an active, industrious man, not a lazy hair on his head. He was generous and fair and respected by all who knew him. John loved and deeply admired the man. Having already lost his own father five years previous, he wrote in his journal, “Now there is no one living whom I can call ‘father.’” Whitman was a kind of father figure, too, of course—even a mother figure, as John describes upon first meeting him years before “his great summery, motherly soul.” Now the poet’s death loomed. (When Whitman finally died two and half years hence, John would return to Camden and look upon Walt’s body: “Cannot be satisfied—it is not Walt—a beautiful, serene old man, but not Walt. After awhile I have to accept it as him—his ‘excrementitious body,’ as he called it.”)

Perhaps he divulged his chronic troubles getting along with his wife, whom Walt knew well and fondly from their days decades ago in Washington, DC. “I suspect my housekeeping with that woman is about done,” wrote John in his journal the following week. “I simply cannot stand her temper and her want of intelligent interest in any worthy thing under the sun.” Or perhaps John confessed that his mind wasn’t feeling fresh enough to write his nature essays any longer, the “out-door papers” he’d become so famous for. “I fear it has gone from me forever,” he writes. “I cannot get up that keen fresh interest in things any more, I fear.” Or perhaps before John departed again for his home in the Hudson River Valley, the two men discussed an article John had recently read—and objected to—in the August issue of the North American Review, Lyman Abbott’s “A Word with Professor Huxley,” which Burroughs would rebut with his essay “The Corroboration of Professor Huxley” in the November NAR, his first—but certainly not his last appearance in the pages of the oldest literary magazine in the country. 

The North American Review that Burroughs was writing for differed radically from the gentlemanly review founded in 1815 in Boston, where it was decidedly a product of Harvard. The first editors were a group of young men a generation removed from the heroes of the American Revolution. Whereas this older generation had declared the political independence of the United States, the NAR represented a cultural declaration of independence, and in its pages the editors would endeavor to find, promote, or otherwise help to shape a uniquely American literature. In its first fifty years of existence, it earned a conservative reputation and the nickname “Old North,” with an emphasis on the word “old.” In Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, for instance, Miles Coverdale refers to “the conservatives, the writers of the North American Review, the merchants, the politicians, the Cambridge men, and all those respectable old blockheads.” It was called by one critic in 1847 “the torpid and respectable North American Review . . . that calm old adder slumbering upon the lawn of Harvard”; by another critic “that singular fossil, the North American Review”; and Thoreau, who boasted never to have written for the magazine, wrote in his journal in 1853 about “blundering through the cobweb of criticism”: “what venerable cobweb is that which has hitherto escaped the broom, whose spider is invisible, but the North American Review?”

By 1889 when Burroughs’s “The Corroboration of Professor Huxley” appears, the magazine had been located in New York for more than a decade. It was moved from Boston in 1878 by its new owner and editor, the energetic and unconventional Allen Thorndike Rice, who succeeded in transforming the NAR into a new, vibrant, and popular publication. He succeeded in his goal to “make the Review an arena wherein any man having something valuable to say could be heard.” By 1891, it reached a peak circulation of seventy-six thousand and was being hailed as

that live, fresh, and—in a good sense of the word—sensational periodical that all the world knows it to be. . . . It is unquestionably true that the North American is regarded by more people, in all parts of the country, as at once the highest and the most impartial platform upon which current public issues can be discussed, than is any other magazine or review.

The NAR remains live and fresh today. Housed at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the magazine focuses on publishing the best new literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry rather than addressing public affairs. The magazine has also earned a reputation as a welcoming venue for the diversity of literary voices to be found in the United States, North America, and beyond.

In June 2015, to celebrate the bicentennial of the magazine, the NAR Press published The Great Sympathetic: Walt Whitman and the North American Review, a book very much like the one you’re holding in your hands now. The Great Sympathetic collects essays by and about the great American poet Walt Whitman, as well as contemporary poems inspired by him, all of which originally appeared in the pages of the North American Review. Among these selections was “The Poet of Democracy,” an essay by John Burroughs published just after Whitman’s death in 1892—and which reappears in these pages. This introduction begins in Camden with Whitman because the conception of this book is with Whitman, too. Our celebration of Whitman has led to this celebration of John Burroughs, a writer who was in his day more famous than the poet but who is today less well-known and too infrequently celebrated.

Most people who are familiar with Burroughs today know him as a nature writer—and rightly so. His nature essays were read and well-regarded by millions. Though his extraordinary literary fame and popularity in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries has waned, he has nevertheless deeply influenced many prominent writers of the natural world, especially those interested in cultivating an ecological consciousness, maintaining an ethical relationship to place, and being rooted in place in this ever faster, hyper-technologized world we find ourselves living and working in. Most people today remain unaware of the Burroughs found in these pages. The title of this book, then, reflects not only the manifold qualities of the natural world that Burroughs explores in his 1916 essay of the same name, but also the manifold nature of Burroughs himself as a writer and thinker. In addition to the keen and accurate observer of the natural world, we see him here as the literary critic, we see him as the champion of Whitman, we see him as the philosopher. The goal of this collection is manifold, too. Not only do we continue to celebrate the unique cultural contribution of the North American Review by reflecting on the magazine’s vast two-hundred-year-old archives, but we also invite a full reassessment of the life and work of John Burroughs.

Collected here are the nineteen essays Burroughs published in the North American Review between 1889 and 1920, along with essays, reviews, and letters to the editor about Burroughs and his work. Such a collection is necessarily eclectic, but in the end a sense of cohesion emerges as we enjoy a glimpse of this and that aspect of John Burroughs. Brief summaries accompany each selection, and contextual information is included where it was considered profitable to do so. Later these essays would appear in one form or another in Burroughs’s books Whitman: A Study (1896), Light of Day (1900), Time and Change (1912), The Breath of Life (1915), Under the Apple-Trees (1916), Accepting the Universe (1920), and the posthumous Under the Maples (1922). We don’t find mid-career Burroughs writing about Audubon and Roosevelt, nor do we find the early Burroughs of Wake-Robin (1871) and Locusts and Wild Honey (1879)As a writer, he was aware that his audience wanted him to “stick to natural history themes,” as he writes in the preface to Under the Apple-Trees. “I sympathize with them. I am never so pleased as when I can bring them a fresh bit of natural history, or give them a day with me in the fields and woods or along the murmuring streams.” Burroughs understood that narrative essays “come home to us in a way that speculative ideas do not. . . . Birds and flowers are not always in season, but philosophy we have always with us. It is a crop which we can grow and reap at all times and in all places, and it has its own value and brings its own satisfaction.” He never pretends to have found the absolute answers to the difficult, sometimes intractable philosophical questions he explores, but “I find the effort stimulating, and now and then I get a gleam of light.” Manifold Nature invites you to enter these pages, to enter the world of John Burroughs, and to find your own gleam of light here.