Emerson's Natural Theology: John Burroughs and the "Church" of Latter Day Transcendentalism

By Payne, Daniel G. | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), September 2007 | Go to article overview

Emerson's Natural Theology: John Burroughs and the "Church" of Latter Day Transcendentalism


Payne, Daniel G., ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


At the time of his death in 1921, John Burroughs was universally regarded as America's preeminent nature writer. Beginning in 1871, he wrote hundreds of essays that appeared in the nation's leading periodicals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Scribner's, and The Century; he had over twenty books in print; and in his writing cabin near West Park, a tiny village in the mid-Hudson valley, the "Sage of Slabsides" played host to numerous friends and admirers, such as John Muir, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and President Theodore Roosevelt. As Hans Huth writes in Nature and the American, "Burroughs set a new standard for the nature essay, which soon occupied a definite niche in literature" (102). After Burroughs's death, however, popular and critical interest in his work slowly waned. While he certainly was not entirely forgotten--the John Burroughs Association was formed in 1921, and since that time has annually awarded a medal for an outstanding book in natural history--he was generally seen as belonging to the second tier of American nature writers, behind such nineteenth-century contemporaries such as Henry Thoreau and John Muir, writers who had been far less popular in their time but were now generally considered to be more closely in touch with modern sensibilities.

There are three primary factors which contribute to Burroughs's diminished reputation over the past eighty years. First, despite Burroughs's remarkable literary output, there is no single book--no Walden, no A Sand County Almanac, no Desert Solitaire--that epitomizes his work and has become a staple of college classrooms. Second, his essays are often dismissed as old-fashioned: his fondness for rural settings and themes seen as evidence of his lack of topicality, of relevance, of a cutting edge. As Bill McKibben writes in a 1992 essay, "The Call of the Not So Wild," to a modern audience Burroughs's writings often appear "old-fashioned," perhaps even "cloying or overdone" (32-33). Burroughs is sometimes also criticized for his personal association with some of the titans of the Gilded Age, such as Ford, Edison, Harvey Firestone, and Burroughs's old schoolmate from Roxbury, New York, Jay Gould--and it is certainly true that Burroughs was not a vocal critic of the industrial excesses of the period. Finally, Burroughs rarely took an active role in the political battles for conservation and wilderness preservation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Burroughs had a well-earned reputation for diffidence and a desire to avoid conflict, notwithstanding the rather odd exception of the "nature faker" controversy of the early 1900s. (1) He was occasionally criticized by those who took a more active role in the early conservation movement, a charge to which he pled, at least in part, guilty: "I was never a tighter. I fear at times I may have been a shirker, but I have shirked one thing, or one duty, that I might the more heartily give myself to another" (Barrus, LL 2:312). For many modern critics this lack of political activism is a fatal flaw in Burroughs, and a contrast to writers such as Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, and Rachel Carson, all of whom had ties to environmental organizations that helped further their environmental legacies and ensure the enduring popularity of their literary works.

Over the past fifteen years, however, a resurgence of scholarly interest in Burroughs has led to a reappraisal of his work that makes clear that Burroughs's contributions to nature writing and modern environmentalism go remarkably, if sometimes subtly, deep. This renewed interest in Burroughs has resulted in two major biographical studies; two collections of his essays; reprints of several full length works, including a scholarly edition of Burroughs's Signs and Seasons; and several full length critical studies, such as Charlotte Zoe Walker's Sharp Eyes: John Burroughs and American Nature Writing (2000) and James Perrin Warren's John Burroughs and the Place of Nature (2006).

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