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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 2/34 -
hay; going to a ball-game, at which no boy there enjoyed the contest more, or was better informed as to the points of the game. "Verily," she says, "he has what Bjornson called 'the child in the heart.'"
It is the "child in the heart," and, in a way, the "child" in his books, that accounts for his wide appeal. He often says he can never think of his books as /works/, because so much play went into the making of them. He has gone out of doors in a holiday spirit, has had a good time, has never lost the boy's relish for his outings, and has been so blessed with the gift of expression that his own delight is communicated to his reader.
And always it is the man behind the book that makes the widest appeal. In 1912, a Western architect, in correspondence with the writer concerning recent essays of Mr. Burroughs, said:--
I have had much pleasure and soul-help in reading and re-reading "The Summit of the Years." In this, and in "All's Well with the World," is mirrored the very soul of the gentlest, the most lovable man-character I have ever come across in literature or life. . . .To me all his books, from "Wake-Robin" to "Time and Change," radiate the most joyous optimism. . . . During the past month I have devoted my evenings to re-reading [them]. . . . He has always meant a great deal more to me than merely intellectual pleasure, and, next to Walt Whitman, has helped me to keep my life as nearly open to the influences of outdoors and the stars as may be in a dweller in a large town.
As I write, a letter comes from a Kansas youth, now a graduate student at Yale, expressing the hope that he can see Mr. Burroughs at Slabsides in April: "There is nothing I want to say--but for a while I would like to be near him. He is my great good teacher and friend. . . . As you know, he is more to me than Harvard or Yale. He is the biggest, simplest, and serenest man I have met in all the East."
I suppose there is no literary landmark in America that has had a more far-reaching influence than Slabsides. Flocks of youths and maidens from many schools and colleges have, for the past fifteen years, climbed the hill to the rustic cabin in all the gayety and enthusiasm of their young lives. But they have seen more than the picturesque retreat of a living author; they have received a salutary impression made by the unostentatious life of a man who has made a profound impression on his day who has made a profound impression on his day and age; they have gone their separate ways with an awakened sense of the comradeship it is possible to have with nature, and with an ennobling affection for the one who has made them aware of it. And this affection goes with them to whatever place on the globe their destinies carry them. It is transmitted to their children; it becomes a very real part of their lives.
"My dear John Burroughs--Everybody's dear John Burroughs," a friend writes him from London, recounting her amusing experiences in the study of English birds. And it is "Everybody's dear John Burroughs" who stands in the wide doorway at Slabsides and gives his callers a quiet, cordial welcome. And when the day is ended, and the visitor goes his way down the hill, he carries in his heart a new treasure--the surety that he has found a comrade.
Having had the privilege for the past twelve years of helping Mr. Burroughs with his correspondence, I have been particularly interested in the spontaneous responses which have come to him from his young readers, not only in America, but from Europe, New Zealand, Australia. Confident of his interest, they are boon companions from the start. They describe their own environment, give glimpses of the wild life about them, come to him with their natural-history difficulties; in short, write as to a friend of whose tolerant sympathy they feel assured. In fact, this is true of all his correspondents. They get on easy footing at once. They send him birds, flowers, and insects to identify; sometimes live animals and birds--skylarks have been sent from England, which he liberated on the Hudson, hoping to persuade them to become acclimated; "St. John's Bread," or locust pods, have come to him from the Holy. Land; pressed flowers and ferns from the Himalayas, from Africa, from Haleakala.
Many correspondents are considerate enough not to ask for an answer, realizing the countless demands of this nature made upon a man like Mr. Burroughs; others boldly ask, not only for a reply, but for a photograph, an autograph, his favorite poem written in his own hand, a list of favorite books, his views on capital punishment, on universal peace, on immortality; some naively ask for a sketch of his life, or a character sketch of his wife with details of their home life, and how they spend their time; a few modestly hope he will write a poem to them personally, all for their very own. A man of forty-five is tired of the hardware business, lives in the country, sees Mr. Burroughs's essays in the "Country Calendar," and asks him to "learn" him to "rite for the press."
Some readers take him to task for his opinions, some point out errors, or too sweeping statements (for he does sometimes make them); occasionally one suggests other topics for him to write about; others labor to bring him back into orthodox paths; hundreds write of what a comfort "Waiting" has been; and there are countless requests for permission to visit Slabsides, as well as invitations to the homes of his readers.
Many send him verses, a few the manuscripts of entire books, asking for criticism. (And when he does give criticism, he gives it "unsweetened," being too honest to praise a thing unless in his eyes it merits praise.) Numerous are the requests that he write introductions to books; that he address certain women's clubs; that he visit a school, or a nature-study club, or go from Dan to Beersheba to hold Burroughs Days--each writer, as a rule, urging his claim as something very special, to which a deaf ear should not be turned. Not all his correspondents are as considerate as the little girl who was especially eager to learn his attitude toward snakes, and who, after writing a pretty letter, ended thus: "Inclosed you will find a stamp, for I know it must be fearfully expensive and inconvenient to be a celebrity."
Occasionally he is a little severe with a correspondent, especially if one makes a preposterous statement, or draws absurd conclusions from faulty observations. But he is always fair. The following letter explains itself:--
Your first note concerning my cat and hog story made me as mad as a hornet, which my reply showed. Your second note has changed me into a lamb, as nearly as a fellow of seventy-five can become one. . . .
I have read, I think, every book you ever wrote, and do not let any production of yours escape me; and I have a little pile of framed copies of your inimitable "My Own" to diffuse among people at Christmas; and all these your writings make me wonder and shed metaphorical tears to think that you are such a heretic about reason in animals. But even Homer nods; and it is said Roosevelt has moments of silence. S. C. B.
The questions his readers propound are sometimes very amusing. A physician of thirty years' practice asks in all seriousness how often the lions bring forth their young, and whether it is true that there is a relation between the years in which they breed and the increased productivity of human beings. One correspondent begs Mr. Burroughs to tell him how he and his wife and Theodore Roosevelt fold their hands (as though the last-named ever folded his), declaring he can read their characters with surprising accuracy if this information is forthcoming. In this instance, I think, Mr. Burroughs folded his hands serenely, leaving his correspondent waiting for the valued data.
The reader will doubtless be interested to see the kind of letter the children sometimes get from their friend. I am fortunate in having one written in 1887 to a rhetoric class in Fulton, New York, and one in 1911, written to children in the New York City schools, both of which I will quote:--
West Park, N. Y., February 21, 1887
My Dear Young Friends,--
Your teacher Miss Lawrence has presumed that I might have something to say to a class of boys and girls studying rhetoric, and, what is more, that I might be disposed to say it. What she tells me about your interest in my own writings certainly interests me and makes me wish I might speak a helpful word to you. But let me tell you that very little conscious rhetoric has gone into the composition of those same writings.
Valuable as the study of rhetoric undoubtedly is, it can go but a little way in making you successful writers. I think I have got more help as an author from going a-fishing than from any textbook or classbook I ever looked into. Miss Lawrence will not thank me for encouraging you to play truant, but if you take Bacon's or Emerson's or Arnold's or Cowley's essays with you and dip into them now and then while you are waiting for the fish to bite, she will detect some fresh gleam in your composition when next you hand one in.
There is no way to learn style so sure as by familiarity with nature, and by study of the great authors. Shakespeare can teach you all there is to be learned of the art of expression, and the rhetoric of a live trout leaping and darting with such ease and sureness cannot well be beaten.
What you really have in your heart, what you are in earnest about, how easy it is to say that!
Miss Lawrence says you admire my essay on the strawberry. Ah! but I loved the strawberry--I loved the fields where it grew, I loved the birds that sang there, and the flowers that bloomed there, and I loved my mother who sent me forth to gather the berries; I loved all the rural sights and sounds, I felt near them, so that when, in after years, I came to write my essay I had only to obey the old adage which sums up all of the advice which can be given in these matters, "Look in thy heart and write."
The same when I wrote about the apple. I had apples in my blood and bones. I had not ripened them in the haymow and bitten them under the seat and behind my slate so many times in school for nothing. Every apple tree I had ever shinned up and dreamed under of a long summer day, while a boy, helped me to write that paper. The whole life on the farm, and love of home and of father and mother, helped me to write it. In writing your compositions, put your rhetoric behind you and tell what you feel and know, and describe what you have seen.
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