An Open Letter to John Burroughs Concerning the Brevity of Fame

Mr. Renehan’s books include John Burroughs: An American Naturalist (1992), currently available in paperback from Black Dome Press. He is at work on a biography of Jay Gould.

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Mr. Renehan is working on a one-hour documentary about Burroughs (1837-1921) for public television. It is being produced by Lynn Spangler, whose previous credits include a much-praised documentary about the black abolitionist Sojourner Truth. The documentary is expected to be completed in early 2005.

Dear JB:

Some friends and I are making a documentary film about your long life. We've just finished a shoot at your beautifully-preserved but rarely-visited cabin, Slabsides, near the western shore of the Hudson River some 90 miles above Manhattan. As well, we will soon be at work with our cameras at your Catskills retreat, Woodchuck Lodge, on the family farm where you were born.

We're hoping the project will do something to resurrect your image.

Given the acclaim of your later years, you'll perhaps be surprised to learn that you are virtually unknown to the popular mind of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Of course, in your day you were a real lion: the most popular literary naturalist of your generation and a widely read critic to boot. Your many works -- which included the first book-length study of your good friend Walt Whitman -- sold in the millions worldwide, and you traveled in a circle of celebrity. Old newsreels show you visiting Yellowstone with Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, journeying with John Muir to Alaska in 1899 as part of the Harriman Expedition, and engaged in a succession of camping trips with such magnates as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone.

During your later years children nationwide used reading-primers incorporating your prose. When you died in 1921, the New York State Legislature adjourned in your honor. News of your demise made the front page of the New York Times. Such poets as Edwin Markham wrote rhymed memorials. Leading literary critics hailed you, quite appropriately, as one of the fathers of modern American nature writing. And some even paused to remember that during the 1870s no less a light than Henry James called you "a more humorous, more available and more sociable Thoreau."

But today Thoreau's fame, like that of James, quite outshines your own; and it is interesting to ponder why.

As you once wrote: "The day inevitably comes to every author when he must take his place amid the silent throngs of the past, when no works can call attention to him afresh; when the partiality of his friends no longer counts; when his friends and admirers themselves are gathered to their fathers; when the spirit of the day in which he writes has given place to the spirit of another and different day … How will it fare with poor me?"

Not well, my friend, not well. Most of your more than 25 books were out of print within five years of your death; and the several adoring but unreadable hagiographies written by your mistress and designated literary executrix, Clara Barrus, did nothing to keep kindled the flame of your reputation. In fact, critics attacked Barrus's books for offering far too quaint and cliché-loaded a picture at a time (the profoundly skeptical decade following the conclusion of World War I) when people were not of a mind to accept or believe sugar-coated images. As well, you timed your dying to a moment when tastes and sensibilities were about to undergo a fundamental change. Now came the Jazz Age: poems by Eliot and Pound, paintings by Picasso, prose by Hemingway and others of the Lost Generation. In some of your very last writings -- which, after your death, Barrus hastily scooped up and published in two posthumous volumes -- you put on your intolerant-old-man hat and criticized the new generation of poets and painters: the same innovators who quickly overshadowed you once you were gone.

By 1941, the naturalist and explorer William Beebe was almost apologetic about including your essay "Old Friends in New Places," (from Under the Appletrees, 1916) in his 1941 anthology The Book of Naturalists. Mistakenly referring to you as a "New England essayist," Beebe said that had he not included you in the book, there would have been left "a minor but unfillable gap between Thoreau and some of the modern naturalists." Thankfully, you received somewhat better treatment in Van Wyck Brooks's The Times of Melville and Whitman (1947). Brooks delivered an astute and generous appraisal of your life and writings, saying your work conveyed "the feeling of a mind really in love with the world, large, alive with curiosity, perceptive, alert … one could open virtually at random any of [Burroughs's] multitudinous books and count upon finding something memorable and happy." Also, on occasion, a few popular nature writers of the 1940s and 1950s -- most notably the Pulitzer Prize winner Edwin Way Teale -- took public notice of the debt they owed you.

During 1959, your granddaughter Elizabeth Burroughs Kelley wrote a nostalgic, heartfelt, but utterly-amateurish biography entitled John Burroughs, Naturalist. Published by a vanity press, the book did not receive either serious critical attention nor wide distribution. At the same time, Elizabeth did all she could to inhibit and restrain other, more capable biographers. She restricted access to your papers and forced a situation where her rather questionable work remained the one in-print study of your life for many years.

Nineteen sixty-eight saw the republication by Russell & Russell of your so-called "complete works," twenty-three volumes in all excluding Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt, Squirrels and Other Fur Bearers and your Audubon biography. Then 1974 witnessed E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, wherein you made a cameo appearance as a friend of Henry Ford and "an old naturalist who studied the humble creatures of the woodland -- chipmunk and raccoon, junko, wren and chickadee." But later on, after Hollywood bought the rights and made the film, you wound up on the cutting-room floor.

Through the 1960s and 70s, as the environmental movement emerged as a cultural force, you and others of your era, particularly John Muir, began to find a new generation of readers interested in your prose. But Muir experienced far more of a revival than you. This was in part because Muir, in addition to his books, also left behind an activist environmental organization of his own founding. The Sierra Club enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in the '60s after a malaise of several decades. As the Club revived, so did Muir's popularity and influence. Within the books of your friend Muir, environmentally-aware young people found a firm expression of the importance of pristine wilderness and a distinct call for its preservation. Within your own prose, however, they found something less: a gentle, unradical voice singing the praises of woodlands and the rural way of life, but generally stopping short of demanding that the bulldozers be turned back.

Given all this, what is it that redeems you? Why are you worth reading, studying, remembering? The answer, I think, is straightforward enough. In the tradition of your two great mentors Emerson and Whitman, you helped point the way for people of modern times to find personal redemption and transcendence through a life lived close to and in sympathy with nature. In a time of decaying creeds, you proposed an essentially religious philosophy of nature meant to free people from the cynicism of the new industrial era. In the midst of the Gilded Age, a time of institutionalized harshness, you articulated a hopeful, sane prescription for personal salvation.

This is what we'll try to get across in our film. I'll let you know how it goes.

Edward J. Renehan Jr.

Related Link

  • The Catskill Archive: Writings of John Burroughs on the Web
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    More Comments:

    Steven J. Klebaur - 12/10/2005

    Does anyone have any word on the progress of Edward Renehan's documentary? Will it be seen on PBS in the near future?

    Steve K

    N.K. Land - 1/25/2004

    This article is in pdf format, and so requires Adobe Acrobat Reader:

    N.K. Land - 10/28/2003

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