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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 1/34 -


by: Clara Barrus

[Illustration: John Burroughs. From a photograph by Theona Peck Harris]











We all claim John Burroughs as our friend. He is inextricably blended with our love for the birds and the flowers, and for all out of doors; but he is much more to us than a charming writer of books about nature, and we welcome familiar glimpses of him as one welcomes anything which brings him in closer touch with a friend.

A clever essayist, in speaking of the "obituary method of appreciation," says that we feel a slight sense of impropriety and insecurity in contemporary plaudits. "Wait till he is well dead, and four or five decades of daisies have bloomed over him, says the world; then, if there is any virtue in his works, we will tag and label them and confer immortality upon him." But Mr. Burroughs has not had to wait till the daisies cover him to be appreciated. A multitude of his readers has sought him out and walked amid the daisies with him, listened with him to the birds, and gained countless delightful associations with all these things through this personal relation with the author; and these friends in particular will, I trust, welcome some "contemporary plaudits."

As a man, and as a writer, Mr. Burroughs has been in the public eye for many years. At the age of twenty-three he had an article printed in the "Atlantic Monthly," and in 1910 that journal celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his contributions to its columns. Early in his career he received marked recognition from able critics, and gratifying responses from readers. It is rare in the history of an author that his books after fifty years of writing have the freshness, lucidity, and charm that Mr. Burroughs's later books have. A critic in 1876 speaks of his "quiet, believing style, free from passion or the glitter of rhetoric, and giving one the sense of simple eyesight"; and now, concerning one of his later books, "Time and Change," Mr. Brander Matthews writes: "In these pellucid pages--so easy to read because they are the result of hard thinking--he brings home to us what is the real meaning of the discoveries and the theories of the scientists. . . . He brings to bear his searching scientific curiosity and his sympathetic interpreting imagination. . . . All of them models of the essay at its best--easy, unpedantic, and unfailingly interesting."

From school-children all over the United States, from nearly every civilized country on the globe, from homes of the humble and of the wealthy, from the scholar in his study, from the clergyman, the lawyer, the physician, the business man, the farmer, the raftsman, the sportsman, from the invalid shut in from the great outdoors (but, thanks to our friend, not shut /out/ from outdoor blessings), have come for many years heartfelt letters attesting the wholesome and widespread influence of his works.

President Roosevelt a few years ago, in dedicating one of his books to "Dear Oom John," voiced the popular feeling: "It is a good thing for our people that you have lived, and surely no man can wish to have more said of him."

Some years ago, the New York "Globe," on announcing a new book by Mr. Burroughs, said, "It has been the lot of few writers of this country or of any country to gain such good will and personal esteem as for many years have been freely given to John Burroughs." If we ask why this is so, we find it answered by Whitman, who, in conversation with a friend, said, "John is one of the true hearts--one of the true hearts--warm, sure, firm."

Mr. Burroughs has been much visited, much "appreciated," much rhymed about, much painted, modeled, and photographed, and--much loved. Because he has been so much loved, and because his influence has been so far-reaching, it has seemed to me that a book which gives familiar and intimate glimpses of him will be welcomed by the legion who call him friend. The exceptional opportunities I have enjoyed for many years past of observing him encourage me in the undertaking.

The readers of Mr. Burroughs crave the personal relation with him. Just as they want to own his books, instead of merely taking them from the public libraries, so they want to meet the man, take him by the hand, look into his eyes, hear his voice, and learn, if possible, what it is that has given him his unfailing joy in life, his serenity, his comprehensive and loving insight into the life of the universe. They feel, too, a sense of deep gratitude to one who has shown them how divine is the soil under foot--veritable star-dust from the gardens of the Eternal. He has made us feel at one with the whole cosmos, not only with bird and tree, and rock and flower, but also with the elemental forces, the powers which are friendly or unfriendly according as we put ourselves in right or wrong relations with them. He has shown us the divine in the common and the near at hand; that heaven lies about us here in this world; that the glorious and the miraculous are not to be sought afar off, but are here and now; and that love of the earth-mother is, in the truest sense, love of the divine: "The babe in the womb is not nearer its mother than are we to the invisible, sustaining, mothering powers of the universe, and to its spiritual entities, every moment of our lives." One who speaks thus of the things of such import to every human soul is bound to win responses; he deals with things that come home to us all. We want to know him.

Although retiring in habit, naturally seeking seclusion, Mr. Burroughs is not allowed overindulgence in this tendency. One may with truth describe him as a contemporary described Edward FitzGerald--"an eccentric man of genius who took more pains to avoid fame than others do to seek it." And yet he is no recluse. When disciples seek out the hermit in hiding behind the vines at Slabsides, they find a genial welcome, a simple, homely hospitality; find that the author merits the Indian name given him by a clever friend--"Man-not-afraid-of-company."

The simplicity and gentleness of this author and his strong interest in people endear him to the reader; we feel these qualities in his writings long before meeting him--a certain urbanity, a tolerant insight and sympathy, and a quiet humor. These draw us to him. Perhaps after cherishing his writings for years, cherishing also a confident feeling that we shall know him some day, we obey a sudden impulse, write to him about a bird or a flower, ask help concerning a puzzling natural-history question, tell him what a solace "Waiting" is, what a joy his books have been; possibly we write some verses to him, or express appreciation for an essay that has enlarged our vision and opened up a new world of thought. Perhaps we go to see him at Slabsides, or in the Catskills, as the case may be; perhaps in some unexpected way he comes to us--stops in the same town where we live, visits the college where we are studying, or we encounter him in our travels. In whatever way the personal relation comes about, we, one and all, share this feeling: he is no longer merely the favorite author, he is /our friend/ John Burroughs.

I question whether there is any other modern writer so approachable, or one we so desire to approach. He has so written himself into his books that we know him before meeting him; we are charmed with his directness and genuineness, and eager to claim the companionship his pages seem to offer. Because of his own unaffected self, our artificialities drop away when we are with him; we want to be and say and do the genuine, simple thing; to be our best selves; and one who brings out this in us is sure to win our love.

[Illustration: Slabsides. From a photograph by Charles S. Olcott]

Mr. Burroughs seems to have much in common with Edward FitzGerald; we may say of him as has been said of the translator of the "Rubaiyat": "Perhaps some worship is given him . . . on account of his own refusal of worship for things unworthy, or even for things merely conventional." Like FitzGerald, too, our friend is a lover of solitude; like him he shuns cities, gets his exhilaration from the common life about him; is inactive, easy-going, a loiterer and saunterer through life; and could say of himself as FitzGerald said, on describing his own uneventful days in the country: "Such is life, and I believe I have got hold of a good end of it." Another point of resemblance: the American dreamer is like his English brother in his extreme sensitiveness--he cannot bear to inflict or experience pain. "I lack the heroic fibre," he is wont to say. FitzGerald acknowledged this also, and, commenting on his own over-sensitiveness and tendency to melancholy, said, "It is well if the sensibility that makes us fearful of ourselves is diverted to become a case of sympathy and interest with nature and mankind." That this sensibility in Mr. Burroughs has been so diverted, all who are familiar with his widespread influence on our national life and literature will agree.

In a bright descriptive article written a few years ago, Miss Isabel Moore dispels some preconceived and erroneous notions about Mr. Burroughs, and shows him as he is--a man keenly alive to the human nature and life around him. "The boys and girls buzzed about him," she says, "as bees about some peculiarly delectable blossom. He walked with them, talked with them, entranced them . . . the most absolutely human person I have ever met--a born comrade, if there ever was one; in daily life a delightful acquaintance as well as a philosopher and poet and naturalist, and a few other things." She describes him riding with a lot of young people on a billowy load of

Our Friend John Burroughs - 1/34

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