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- Our Friend John Burroughs - 6/34 -
sorriest-looking rag I had ever seen--its narrow circumference encircling a very big hole.
"Is /that/ the best dish-cloth you have?" I asked.
For answer he held it up in front of his face, but the most of it being hole, it did not hide the eyes that twinkled so merrily that my housewifely reproof was effectually silenced. I took the sorry remnant and began washing the dishes, mentally resolving, and carrying out my resolution the next day, to send him a respectable dish-cloth. Prosaic, if you will, but does not his own Emerson say something about giving--
"to barrows, trays, and pans, Grace and glimmer of romance"?
And what graces a dish-pan better than a clean, whole, self-respecting dish-cloth?
So there we stood, John Burroughs and his humble reader, washing and wiping dishes, and weighing Amiel and Schopenhauer in the balance at the same time; and a very novel and amusing experience it was. Yet it did not seem so strange after all, but almost as though it had happened before. Silly Sally purred beseechingly as she followed her master about the room and out to the wood-pile, reminding him that she liked chicken bones.
While putting the bread in the large tin box that stood on the stair-landing, I had some difficulty with the clasp. "Never mind that," said Mr. Burroughs, as he scraped the potato skins into the fire; "a Vassar girl sat down on that box last summer, and it's never been the same since."
The work finished, there was more talk before the fire. It was here that the author told his guest about Anne Gilchrist, the talented, noble-hearted Englishwoman, whose ready acceptance of Whitman's message bore fruit in her penetrating criticism of Whitman, a criticism which stands to-day unrivaled by anything that has been written concerning the Good Gray Poet.
Like most of Mr. Burroughs' readers, I cherish his poem "Waiting," and, like most of them, I told him so on seeing him seated before the fire with folded hands and face serene, a living embodiment of the faith and trust expressed in those familiar lines. It would seem natural that he should write such a poem after the heat of the day, after his ripe experience, after success had come to him; it is the lesson we expect one to learn on reaching his age, and learning how futile is the fret and urge of life, how infinitely better is the attitude of trust that what is our own will gravitate to us in obedience to eternal laws. But I there learned that he had written the poem when a young man, life all before him, his prospects in a dubious and chaotic condition, his aspirations seeming likely to come to naught.
"I have lived to prove it true," he said,--"that which I but vaguely divined when I wrote the lines. Our lives are all so fearfully and wonderfully shot through with the very warp and woof of the universe, past, present, and to come! No doubt at all that our own--that which our souls crave and need--does gravitate toward us, or we toward it. 'Waiting' has been successful," he added, "not on account of its poetic merit, but for some other merit or quality. It puts in simple and happy form some common religious aspirations, without using the religious jargon. People write me from all parts of the country that they treasure it in their hearts; that it steadies their hand at the helm; that it is full of consolation for them. It is because it is poetry allied with religion that it has this effect; poetry alone would not do this; neither would a prose expression of the same religious aspirations do it, for we often outgrow the religious views and feelings of the past. The religious thrill, the sense of the Infinite, the awe and majesty of the universe, are no doubt permanent in the race, but the expression of these feelings in creeds and forms addressed to the understanding, or exposed to the analysis of the understanding, is as transient and flitting as the leaves of the trees. My little poem is vague enough to escape the reason, sincere enough to go to the heart, and poetic enough to stir the imagination."
The power of accurate observation, of dispassionate analysis, of keen discrimination and insight that we his readers are familiar with in his writings about nature, books, men, and life in general, is here seen to extend to self-analysis as well,--a rare gift; a power that makes his opinions carry conviction. We feel he is not intent on upholding any theory, but only on seeing things as they are, and reporting them as they are.
A steady rain had set in early in the afternoon, effectually drowning my hopes of a longer wood-land walk that day, but I was then, and many a time since then have been, well content that it was so. I learned less of woodland lore, but more of the woodland philosopher.
In quiet converse passed the hours of that memorable day in the humble retreat on the wooded hills,--
"Far from the clank of the world,"--
and in the company of the poet-naturalist. So cordial had my host been, so gracious the admission to his home and hospitality, that I left the little refuge with a feeling of enrichment I shall cherish while life lasts. I had sought out a favorite author; I had gained a friend.
[In response to my request, Mr. Burroughs began in 1903 to write for me a series of letters, autobiographical in character. It is from them, for the most part, helped out by interviews to fill in the gaps, that I have compiled this part of the book. The letters were not written continuously; begun in 1903, they suffered a long interruption, were resumed in 1906, again in 1907, and lastly in 1912. The reader will, I trust, pardon any repetition noted, an occasional return to a subject previously touched upon being unavoidable because of the long intervals between some of the letters.
It seems to me that these letters picture our author more faithfully than could any portrait drawn by another. Thomas Bailey Aldrich has said that no man has ever yet succeeded in painting an honest portrait of himself in an autobiography, however sedulously he may have set about it; that in spite of his candid purpose he omits necessary touches and adds superfluous ones; that at times he cannot help draping his thought, and that, of course, the least shred of drapery is a disguise. But, Aldrich to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe Mr. Burroughs has pictured himself and his environment in these pages with the same fidelity with which he has interpreted nature. He is so used to "straight seeing and straight thinking" that these gifts do not desert him when his observation is turned upon himself. He seems to be a shining example of the exception that proves the rule. Besides, when Aldrich pronounced that dictum, Mr. Burroughs had not produced these sketches.
This record was not written with the intention of its being published as it stood, but merely to acquaint me with the facts and with the author's feelings concerning them, in case I should some day undertake his biography. But it seems to me that just because it was so written, it has a value which would be considerably lessened were it to be worked over into a more finished form. I have been willing to sacrifice the more purely literary value which would undoubtedly grace the record, were the author to revise it, that I may retain its homely, unstudied human value.
I have arranged the autobiographical material under three headings: Ancestry and Family Life, Childhood and Youth, and Self-Analysis.--C. B.]
ANCESTRY AND FAMILY LIFE
I am, as you know, the son of a farmer. My father was the son of a farmer, as was his father, and his. There is no break, so far as I know, in the line of farmers back into the seventeenth century. There was a Rev. George Burroughs who was hanged (in 1692) for a witch in Salem. He was a Harvard graduate. I know of no other Harvard graduate by our name until Julian [Mr. Burroughs's son] graduated in 1901 from Harvard. My father's cousin, the Rev. John C. Burroughs, the first president of Chicago University, was graduated from Yale sometime in the early forties.
The first John Burroughs of whom I have any trace came from the West Indies, and settled in Stratford, Connecticut, where he married in 1694. He had ten children, of whom the seventh was John, born in August, 1705. My descent does not come from this John, but from his eldest brother, Stephen, who was born at Stratford in February, 1695. Stephen had eight children, and here another John turns up--his last child, born in 1745. His third child, Stephen Burroughs (born in 1729), was a shipbuilder and became a noted mathematician and astronomer, and lived at Bridgeport, Connecticut. My descent is through Stephen's seventh child, Ephraim, born in 1740.
Ephraim, my great-grandfather, also had a large family, six sons and several daughters, of which my grandfather Eden was one. He was born in Stratford, about 1770. My great-grandfather Ephraim left Stratford near the beginning of the Revolution and came into New York State, first into Dutchess County, when Grandfather was a small boy, and finally settled in what is now the town of Stamford, Delaware County, where he died in 1818. He is buried in a field between Hobart and Stamford.
My grandfather Eden married Rachael Avery, and shortly afterward moved over the mountain to the town of Roxbury, cutting a road through the woods and bringing his wife and all their goods and chattels on a sled drawn by a yoke of oxen. This must have been not far from the year 1795. He cleared the land and built a log house with a black-ash bark roof, and a great stone chimney, and a floor of hewn logs. Grandmother said it was the happiest day of her life when she found herself the mistress of this little house in the woods. Great-grandmother Avery lived with them later. She had a petulant disposition. One day when reproved for something, she went off and hid herself in the bushes and sulked--a family trait; I'm a little that way, I guess.
Grandfather Burroughs was religious,--an Old-School Baptist,--a thoughtful, quiet, exemplary man who read his Bible much. He was of spare build, serious, thrifty after the manner of pioneers, and a
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