"The Footsteps of Creative Energy": John Burroughs and Nineteenth-Century Literary Natural History

Article excerpt

Seven years after the publication of Wake-Robin (1871), his first collection of nature essays, John Burroughs wrote in his journal,

   I really see very little of Thoreau in myself.... But my current is
   as strong in my own channel as Thoreau's is in his. Thoreau
   preaches and teaches always. I never preach or teach. I simply see
   and describe. (qtd. in Barrus 74-75)

Burroughs's comments reflect his concern with what James Perrin Warren has identified, drawing from a phrase in the passage, as the "Thoreau charge," the perception of John Burroughs as a disciple in a genre pioneered by the original genius of Henry David Thoreau (Warren 33). During his own life, Burroughs mentioned the issue or underscored it with criticisms of Thoreau frequently enough that Lawrence Buell has diagnosed him with "a prickly, hypersensitive anxiety of influence" (147). Moreover, Burroughs's defense may have had the opposite effect than the one he intended by attracting critics to the comparison that he most wished to avoid. The result has been a place in literary history for John Burroughs as a writer who popularized and standardized the existing genre of the nature essay. In the words of Philip Marshall Hicks, "he did not create a new form of the natural history essay, but he established by constant use and sincere workmanship a form that previous writers had, in the main, employed only experimentally" (157). (1)

Notwithstanding the importance of critical comparisons between Thoreau and Burroughs, there is merit to Burroughs's assertion of his literary independence from Thoreau. What makes the excerpt from the journal truly fascinating is how Burroughs distances his work from Thoreau's by assigning it to a different rhetorical mode. Thoreau, Burroughs tells us, is first and foremost concerned with persuasion, particularly of a moral nature, as the verb "preaches" evokes. As for himself, Burroughs adopts the position of a describer and continues the journal by amplifying this point: "I paint the bird for its own sake, and for the pleasure that it affords me, and am annoyed at any lesson or moral twist" (qtd. in Barrus 74-75). The emphasis of this sentence is on fidelity to nature and human emotional response contrasted to presenting nature as a vehicle to impart moral lessons. In the immediate context, Burroughs refers to transcendentalism, but his statement could just as well be applied to Thoreau's predecessors, most of whom mixed piety into natural history. Read this way, Burroughs's journal entry also becomes a statement about his relationship to the pre-Thoreauvian tradition of literary natural history.

The critic Ralph Black has written, "During more than sixty years of writing nature essays, Burroughs codified and popularized a literary genre that Audubon and Thoreau, if not William Bartram and St. Jean de Crevecoeur, had inaugurated in America" (49). The literary genre that Black refers to is literary natural history, a tradition of writing that presents the subject matter of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century--biology, geology, meteorology, and even anthropology--aesthetically. Beyond this very broad description, literary natural history is difficult to define as a genre due to the different forms that writers have applied. We most often associate the essay with literary natural history, but variations on the scientific form of the life history, correspondence, and travel narratives have all been applied to the tradition. The rhetorical goals of literary naturalists have varied greatly as well. Some, like John James Audubon, presented original scientific research. Others, like Wilson Flagg, a contemporary of Thoreau's, wrote more for literary pleasure and entertainment. (2)

Despite the diversity, it is possible to identify a distinct tradition of literary natural history through some common characteristics. First and foremost--and arguably the most defining characteristic of the genre--literary natural history focuses on the experience of the naturalist. …