John Burroughs | (2024)

The American naturalist and essayist John Burroughs (1837-1921) wrote prolifically of his experiences in nature and was one of America's most honored writers at the beginning of the 20th century.

The seventh of 10 children of Chauncy and Amy Kelly Burroughs, John Burroughs was born on the family dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains near Roxbury, N.Y., on April 3, 1837. He left school at 17 to become a teacher, and he alternated periods of teaching with brief studies at such institutions as Cooperstown Seminary, where he developed enthusiasm for the work of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson. At 20, he married Ursula North, but 2 years passed before his teaching yielded enough money for the couple to set up housekeeping. He was only 23 when James Russell Lowell accepted his essay "Expression" for the Atlantic Monthly. The essay sounded so much like Emerson's work that Lowell at first suspected it had been plagiarized.

In 1863 Burroughs gave up teaching to become a clerk in the Currency Bureau of the Treasury Department in Washington. There the young man of 26 met Walt Whitman, who was 18 years his senior. Of their friendship Burroughs wrote: "I owe more to him than to any other man in the world. He brooded me; he gave me things to think of; he taught me generosity, breadth, and an all-embracing charity." Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person (1867), Burroughs's first book, was written in part by Whitman himself. In his Washington years Burroughs gave himself up to an avid study of birds. His second book, Wake-Robin (1871), a collection of essays on birds, was given itstitle by Whitman. In 1871 the Treasury Department sent him to England, and he later recorded his impressions of that country in Winter Sunshine (1875). By the time the book appeared, Burroughs had left Washington and government service for a home he had built at West Park on the Hudson. There he began fruit farming; he also began keeping the journal in which much of his finest prose was written. His son, Julian, was born in 1878; his wife died in 1917. Few other events disturbed the even pace of his domestic life on the farm, which was his laboratory, his inspiration, and the principal subject of the nature essays which made him famous.

Locusts and Wild Honey (1879) was the first book to reflect the more scientific and less poetic approach that Burroughs took toward nature in his mature work. In 1903 he traveled to Yellowstone Park with President Theodore Roosevelt, who had allied himself with the writer in a campaign for scientifically accurate observation in writing on nature. Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt (1907) recorded the trip. Attracted both to the poetic response to nature, which Emerson represented for him, and to its opposite, the scientific, which he admired in the writings of the English biologist T. H. Huxley, Burroughs found a reconciliation of the two in the work of French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson's influence is evident in such books as Under the Apple-Trees (1916) and The Summit of the Years (1917).

For the last 20 years of his life Burroughs was one of America's most popular and most revered authors. He grew ill while wintering in California in 1921, and he died on March 29 aboard the train on which he was returning to his home.

Further Reading

After Burroughs's death, Clara Barrus published The Life and Letters of John Burroughs (2 vols., 1925) and Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades (1931). She also wrote John Burroughs: Boy and Man (1920) and edited The Heart of Burroughs' Journals (1928). See also Clifton Johnson, John Burroughs Talks: His Reminiscences and Comments (1922), and Elizabeth B. Kelley, John Burroughs, Naturalist (1959). The best study of Burroughs's writings is in Norman Foerster, Nature in American Literature (1923).

Additional Sources

Renehan, Edward, John Burroughs: an American naturalist, Post Mills, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub. Co., 1992.

Kelley, Elizabeth Burroughs, John Burroughs' Slabsides, West Park, N.Y.: Riverby Books, 1987.

Kelley, Elizabeth Burroughs, John Burroughs: naturalist: the story of his work and family, West Park, N.Y.: Riverby Books, 1986, 1959.

Kanze, Edward, The world of John Burroughs, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1993.

Burroughs, John, The birds of John Burroughs: a great naturalist's meditations and essays on bird watching, Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1988. □

John Burroughs | (2024)


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