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Walt Whitman and John Burroughs: Literary Comrades

Vassar’s John Burroughs Collection: a Window on Burroughs and Whitman

By Ronald D. Patkus

John Burroughs had a longstanding and multi-faceted relationship with Vassar College and its students, faculty, and administrators. From the early 1870s he lived in West Park, New York, located on the other side of the Hudson from Poughkeepsie, but still only about 12 miles away from the college. One of the first faculty members he got to know was Frederic Louis Ritter of the Music Department. Relationships with many other Vassar faculty followed in succeeding years; these included, to name just a few, Henry van Ingen of the Art Department, Mary Whitney of the Astronomy Department, and Hazleton Haight of the Latin Department. Burroughs also served as an advisor to Vassar’s Wake Robin club (a student organization devoted to the study of nature), and on numerous occasions he hosted students from the club who visited him at his retreat at Slabsides. Burroughs also visited the college many times, both informally and for special events such as Field Day, or Class Day, or Commencement. A Vassar College banner hung on the walls of Slabsides.

Given the relationship that existed between Burroughs and Vassar, it is not surprising that a noteworthy collection on the naturalist should have developed at the college. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the Thompson Library collected many of the periodicals in which Burroughs’ writings first appeared, such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Century, The Galaxy, and Scribner’s Monthly. It also acquired, of course, Burroughs’ books as they were published, as well as books about him. During the 1940s a painting of Burroughs was given to the college, and sometime thereafter correspondence between the artist and Burroughs. Vassar’s holdings on Burroughs reached a new level of documentation, however, during the presidency of Virginia B. Smith (1977-1986). Under Smith’s leadership, the college began an ambitious effort to build on its tradition of acquiring primary sources, and it was at this time that an opportunity arose to acquire original materials of Burroughs. In 1982, with financial assistance from the Pew Memorial Trust of Philadelphia, the library purchased from Elizabeth Burroughs Kelley (Burroughs’ granddaughter) 53 journals of John Burroughs. The journals dated from 1876 to 1921, and represented the observations and comments of Burroughs that were made during the last 45 years of his life. Along with the journals Vassar received typescripts of them that had been created by Clara Barrus, the doctor-turned-writer who knew Burroughs well, and wrote several books about him. Efforts to build a Burroughs collection did not end there, however. In later years, there were a number of other interesting additions, several of which came from Elizabeth Burroughs Kelley. From time to time the library has received gifts from others, or made purchases.

All of this acquisitions work has resulted in a substantial collection that today makes Vassar a key center for the study of John Burroughs, his work, and his world. The collection now includes not only the journals and their transcripts, but also a variety of other materials, including manuscripts of Burroughs, sketchbooks and scrapbooks, correspondence, business papers, articles and other writings about Burroughs (both published and unpublished), and photographs. The correspondence is especially noteworthy, and includes many letters to and from members of his family, particularly his son Julian and his wife Ursula. Complementing the manuscript material is a collection of about 100 books from John Burroughs’ library, many of which were either annotated by Burroughs or inscribed to him by the authors. In addition to the John Burroughs Collection, Vassar also houses a separate collection of papers of his biographer Clara Barrus, which includes, among other things, an extensive body of correspondence from Burroughs, as well as notes and articles about him.

It should be noted that as significant as the Vassar collection is, it is not the only resource on Burroughs in the country. There is an extensive collection in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library; there, for instance, one will find Burroughs’ journals that date from 1854 to 1876, the early complement to Vassar’s journals. The NYPL also holds correspondence, manuscripts, and related items. New York’s American Museum of Natural History Research Library holds books, photographs, and a film of Burroughs. In the Hudson Valley, the Farida A. Wiley Library at the John Burroughs Sanctuary in West Park holds several collections, including books, personal papers, and photographs of Burroughs. The Town of Esopus Library maintains a John Burroughs Study Center. Outside of this geographical area, there is a John Burroughs Collection at the University of Virginia which includes manuscripts, correspondence, and ephemera.

The purpose of the Vassar collection, and one may infer, of all of the collections just mentioned, is to be a resource for scholars and other researchers interested in learning more about John Burroughs and his times. Because of this service perspective, libraries have been quite pleased to observe, support, and even to a certain extent, participate in, the revival of interest in John Burroughs that has been occurring in recent decades. Holdings like the Vassar John Burroughs Collection create opportunities for education that might not otherwise exist. They can be used over and over again, as different people ask different questions of the sources they examine.

The John Burroughs Collection at Vassar College documents significant aspects of both the professional work and personal life of Burroughs. The collection certainly provides evidence of literary activities. We can follow Burroughs’ thought process through manuscripts and journals; the process of publishing through contracts and other business papers; and the interaction with the public through letters from readers. But we also see the personal side of Burroughs, particularly through the correspondence and journals. As a result, we gain insight into Burroughs’ relationships with many people.

Taken as a whole, the Vassar Burroughs Collection provides a particularly useful and interesting window on the relationship that existed between Burroughs and Walt Whitman. Vassar’s collection is certainly not the only one in the country that offers a view of the interactions between these two men, and it is probably not the most significant. That distinction may well rest with the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, which holds many letters that were exchanged between Burroughs and Whitman. Still, there is a wealth of material here that will be of interest to both the general reader and the serious scholar. It is complemented by materials from other collections in the Vassar library.

Much of the material on Burroughs and Whitman is in the form of print. The library owns a number of works that are essential to understanding the relationship between these two writers. To mention just a few, these include Burroughs’ books on Whitman, his articles on him that appeared in other books, and his articles on him that appeared in various contemporary periodicals. There are also printed items of Whitman that document his relationship with Burroughs, such as a newspaper article he wrote on his visit to New York to see Burroughs. Of special note is a piece of sheet music by Frederic Louis Ritter which sets a Whitman poem to music, and is dedicated to John Burroughs.

There are also several manuscript items to be noted, such as entries in Burroughs’ journals that discuss visits with Whitman, a letter from Whitman to Burroughs, and inscriptions in books Whitman gave to Burroughs. In addition, there are letters to Burroughs from other people that discuss Whitman. We are also fortunate to have several photographs of the two writers, at various stages in their lives, and various kinds of ephemera, such as announcements on the sale of their books, and keepsakes and programs of events and activities, like the service at Whitman’s grave, and the 1919 Whitman centenary at Vassar, where Burroughs spoke.

Vassar’s collections serve as a resource for the exhibit “John Burroughs and Walt Whitman: Literary Comrades.” This is the first Burroughs exhibit to be mounted at Vassar since the journals were acquired in the early 1980s. The possibility of such an exhibit was first conceived in 2005, the year which marked the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass. Other plans had been made for that year, however, and so the date of the exhibit was postponed. Happily, it now occurs in the same year that the “Sharp Eyes” conference on Burroughs is to be held at the college. We are pleased that not only members of the Vassar community, but also conference attendees from other institutions, will be able to view the exhibit.

The purpose of the exhibit is to showcase the literary and personal ties between John Burroughs and Walt Whitman. Most of the items in the exhibit show the influence of Whitman on Burroughs, such as the many books and articles Burroughs wrote about Whitman. In a certain sense these same items also show Burroughs’ influence on Whitman, though, because in some way Burroughs’ writings helped to create a public perception of Whitman the poet. And there are also items which show Burroughs’ more direct influence on Whitman, such as a poem from Drum Taps, which borrowed an image—the thrush—from Burroughs. Because the exhibit focuses on the relationship between these two men, it does not attempt to document fully their respective careers, and so certain items do not appear which are in the Vassar library and which are otherwise interesting to look at and study.

The approach of the exhibit is roughly chronological. It begins in 1855, the year that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass first appeared, and continues on until 1931, a decade after John Burroughs died. It is interesting to see images of Burroughs and Whitman as young men, and later, as old men; in between we see artifacts testifying to their literary ties and their friendship. Their friendship, like any, changed over the years, but it was constant. Even after 1892, the year of Whitman’s death, the relationship continues in a certain way, for Burroughs still felt connected to Whitman and on many occasions spoke or wrote about the poet and his work.

Although the exhibit focuses on Burroughs and Whitman, it also reveals how the relationship between the two affected their connections with other people. We see, for instance, letters from various people written to Burroughs about Whitman. By focusing on Burroughs and Whitman, but also by showing connections to the literary and cultural world in general, we learn about important aspects of American life. It is our hope that viewers of the exhibit will come away with new insights, and new questions that may lead to further study of these topics.

Ronald D. Patkus is Associate Director of the Library for Special Collections, Vassar College