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Burroughs, John (1837-1921)

Biographer, Essayist, Journalist, Travel Writer

Remembered primarily as a naturalist writer, Burroughs grew up on a dairy farm in rural New York state, the seventh of ten children. Burroughs' reading of Emerson's essays is remarked upon as "the first great galvanizing contact for the young writer" (J. P. Warren). At the start of his literary career, Burroughs published in Henry Clapp's Saturday Press. One of the pieces published under the pseudonym "All Souls" was "Fragments from the Table of an Intellectual Epicure." His essay, "Expression" was so reminiscent of Emerson's style that James Russell Lowell, editor of The Atlantic Monthly to which he had submitted the work, reviewed all of Emerson's published works to ensure that the essay was not plagiarized (Warren). In addition to publishing almost thirty books, Burroughs also wrote essays and sketches for magazines like Appleton's, The Atlantic Monthly, Century, Galaxy, and Scribner's Monthly.

Described by Gay Wilson Allen as a "constant reader" and contributor to the Saturday Press, Burroughs was driven by the purpose of meeting Whitman. When the Saturday Press ceased to print, Burroughs called at the Leader office, where several of the Bohemians, including Clapp and Clare, were working and writing. Clapp told Burroughs that "Whitman was at Pfaff's almost every night" (Allen 273). As a result, Burroughs "started frequenting Pfaff's beerhall in New York in the hope of meeting Whitman, whose work he greatly admired" (Folsom and Price 87). Though he may have encountered Walt Whitman at Pfaff's, the two developed an intimate friendship when Burroughs moved to Washington in the fall of 1863 to work for the Currency Bureau of the Treasury Department (Allen 280). Burroughs accompanied Whitman on walks and on his visits to the army hospitals. This friendship inspired Burroughs to write "Walt Whitman and His 'Drum-Taps,'" published in the December 1866 issue of Galaxy. In 1867 he expanded on this theme, writing Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, the composition of which, he later stated, was influenced by Whitman himself. Describing the friendship, Burroughs states that "I loved him as I never loved any man. We were companionable without talking. I owe more to him than to any other man in the world. He brooded me; he gave me things to think of; he taught me generousity, breadth, and an all-embracing charity" (Life and Letters 1:113). After serving as a pall bearer at Whitman's funeral in 1892, Burroughs wrote a series of eighteen essays which he collected into a book, Whitman: A Study (1896).

Although Burroughs preferred to remain close to home, he periodically explored other parts of the country and the world. He traveled to Jamaica, Bermuda, Hawaii, Canada, Alaska, and Europe, and also to various parts of the western and southern United States. His European travels are described in Fresh Fields (1885), and details about his camping trip in Yellowstone with President Roosevelt appear in Camping and Tramping with Roosevelt (1907). In his later years, Burroughs became more interested in the world of science. He published four books between 1919-1922 "in which he sought, with an increasing melancholy, to make the best of a dubious universe" (N. Foerster).