John Burroughs and the Place of Nature

John Burroughs and the Place of Nature

John Burroughs and the Place of Nature

John Burroughs and the Place of Nature


This study situates John Burroughs, together with John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, as one of a trinity of thinkers who, between the Civil War and World War I, defined and secured a place for nature in mainstream American culture. Though not as well known today, Burroughs was the most popular American nature writer of his time. Prolific and consistent, he published scores of essays in influential large-circulation magazines and was often compared to Thoreau. Unlike Thoreau, however, whose reputation grew posthumously, Burroughs wasa celebrity during his lifetime: he wrote more than thirty books, enjoyed a continual high level of visibility, and saw his work taught widely in public schools.

James Perrin Warren shows how Burroughs helped guide urban and suburban middle-class readers "back to nature" during a time of intense industrialization and urbanization. Warren discusses Burroughs's connections not only to Muir and Roosevelt but also to his forebears Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. By tracing the complex philosophical, creative, and temperamental lineage of these six giants, Warren shows how, in their friendships and rivalries, Burroughs, Muir, and Roosevelt made the high literary romanticism of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman relevant to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americans. At the same time, Warren offers insights into the rise of the nature essay as a genre, the role of popular magazines as shapers and conveyors of public values, and the dynamism of place in terms of such opposed concepts as retreat and engagement, nature and culture, and wilderness and civilization.

Because Warren draws on Burroughs's personal, critical, and philosophical writings as well as his better-known narrative essays, readers will come away with a more informed sense of Burroughs as a literary naturalist and a major early practitioner of ecocriticism. John Burroughs and the Place of Nature helps extend the map of America's cultural landscape during the period 1870-1920 by recovering an unfairly neglected practitioner of one of his era's most effective forces for change: nature writing.


An American Literary Naturalist

For the fifty years from 1870 through 1920, John Burroughs was the most famous and widely published nature writer in America. Today, less than a century after his death, he is largely unread, even by teachers of environmental writing. He shares his fate, of course, with scores of writers whose style and vision find little sympathy among modern readers. But Burroughs may not deserve that fate. He gave voice to the art of simple living and to the beauty and power of nature found near at hand. In both respects, his work may speak to modern readers who seek an inclusive, diverse sense of nature, a nature that finds a place in close proximity to culture and exercises a healthy influence upon it.

Death came to John Burroughs on a railroad train somewhere in Ohio. For the sake of his health, he had wintered in southern California in 1920 and again in 1921, but toward the end of February 1921 he was hospitalized there for four weeks. After midnight on March 29, aboard an eastbound train, the dying Burroughs awoke and asked his friend Dr. Clara Barrus, “How far are we from home?” He died twelve hours before the train arrived at his Hudson Valley home in West Park, New York. The circumstances of his death point toward the deep elegiac strain in Burroughs’s writing and to his profound sense of displacement in the modern world.

Born on a Catskill dairy farm on April 3, 1837, Burroughs led the existence of a farm boy until he left home to become a rural schoolteacher in the spring of 1854. For the rest of his days, he blended the life of a farmer with the life of a literary writer, though he always insisted that his work was humble in its aims: “I always read the best books of English literature eagerly, but I could never acquire any of the marks or accomplishments of a scholar…. I got much out of books, but not what the schools and colleges . . .

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