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Burroughs, Whitman and Darwin in the Summer of 1883 at Ocean Grove, New Jersey

By Jeff Walker

I am sure that I was an evolutionist in the abstract, or by the quality and complexion of my mind, before I read Darwin,” John Burroughs writes in the preface to Time and Change, “but to become an evolutionist in the concrete ...has not been for me an easy matter” (vi). This paper will explore Burroughs’s changing attitudes toward evolution, concentrating especially on the late summer of 1883 when Burroughs finished reading Darwin’s Origin of Species while staying at Ocean Grove, New Jersey. I will argue that Walt Whitman, who arrived at Ocean Grove the day after Burroughs finished Darwin’s book, helped influence Burroughs’s opinions about evolution.

Burroughs first read Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle in 1880, and felt that it was the work that would outlast all of Darwin’s other writings (Last Harvest 189). He finished the Descent of Man in early August of 1883, and commented famously “the book convinces like Nature herself. I have no more doubt of its main conclusions that I have of my own existence.” (journal, August 6, 1883). For the rest of that year (at least), Burroughs punctuated his journal entries with commentary on Darwin and the ramifications of his theories.

In late September of 1883, while staying at Ocean Grove, NJ, Burroughs finished the Origin of Species and called it “a true wonder book” (journal, September 26, 1883). In addition to praising Darwin the naturalist, Burroughs was also excited because the theory of evolution by natural selection as Darwin presents it:

has such range, accounts for such a multitude of facts, easily underruns and outruns the views of we other naturalists...His theory confronts and even demands the incalculable geologic ages. It is as ample as the earth and as deep as time. It mates with and matches and is as grand as the nebular hypothesis and is on the same line of creative energy (journal, September 26, 1883).

Over the years Burroughs became an active promoter of Darwin, culminating in 1912 when he published Time and Change in which fully seven of the thirteen essays address aspects of evolution. By the 1920s, however, Burroughs’s enthusiasm for Darwin’s theory had started to wane, and many essays in his final two books refer to Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection negatively.

To understand this trajectory, we need to know something about the 19th-century debates concerning evolution, and how Burroughs reflected those debates. By the second half of the 19th-century, many people, prominent religious leaders included, had accepted the idea that species had evolved over time. The big debates concerned the mechanism by which those changes occurred, the role of divine guidance in directing change, and the origin of the human species. Accordingly, John Burroughs did not question the concept of evolution but struggled with the “animal origin of man”, as it was called, and with the randomness implied by the “struggle for existence” or Natural Selection.

Burroughs eventually came to terms with the evolution of humans, albeit grudgingly: “One of the conclusions of science which I feel forced to accept, and yet which I find very hard to believe, is that of the animal origin of man.” (Time and Change 175). He had much more difficulty with a random universe for he felt strongly that each organism had within it a drive to evolve.

These doubts about Natural Selection reflected a fundamentalist Baptist upbringing which Burroughs tried for most of his life to cast off. His father, Chauncy Burroughs, was a strict Baptist, and raised his children accordingly. Historian J. David Hoeveler states that Baptists at the time saw things historically with

an emphatic teleology...[They saw] a history full of meaning and a progression marked by cosmic purpose. They would embrace evolution, and embrace it enthusiastically, to the extent that it brought an active God back into the universe and made him the vehicle of redemptive history. (Hoeveler 105)

Compare that characterization to the following statement by John Burroughs in which a “Cosmic Mind” provides the cosmic purpose:

I am convinced that there is something immanent in the universe, pervading every atom and molecule in it, that knows what it wants – a Cosmic Mind or Intelligence that we must take account of if we would make any headway in trying to understand the world in which we find ourselves (Last Harvest 182).

This quotation is from Burroughs’s last book (published post-humously), but the sentiment is not one that came upon Burroughs late in life. In fact, he expressed similar opinions in his first book (which was, incidentally, on Walt Whitman):

Man is the crowning product of God, of Nature, because in him all that preceded, and all that exists in objective Nature is resumed. He comprehends all, and in him what was elsewhere unconscious becomes conscious; what was physical becomes moral. He is living proof that every single atom of dust is capable of vital life and divine aspiration. Without him, Nature, though living, is dead (Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person 67).

If John Burroughs was “hard wired” so to speak to disbelieve a concept so fundamental to Darwinism, how can we explain his enthusiasm for Darwin when he finished the naturalist’s books in 1883? Aside from the enthusiasm that comes from finishing any well-written book, or an enthusiasm born of his great respect for Darwin as a naturalist, the influence of Walt Whitman also helped to convince him.

From before the publication of the Origin of Species, Walt Whitman embraced the idea of evolution. Although it is not clear whether Whitman was Darwinian or Lamarkian in his opinions (Tanner 163), Whitman had a basic sympathy for Darwin, and for the “struggle for existence” that was a basic part of Natural Selection. Late in his life, Whitman remarked to Horace Traubel, “I don’t know anything that has gone higher that Darwin – the noble, the exalting. Darwin to me is science incarnate; its spirit is Darwin, Darwin its.” (Traubel 454).

Whitman embraced the primordial origin of life and the animal origin of man:

[I] am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all one,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons (“Song of Myself”; qtd. in Beaver 111)

In fact, Whitman even allowed that humans, though perhaps the apex of evolution currently, are not necessarily the end-products of evolution:

The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres (“Leaves of Grass” 221; qtd. in Beaver 113)

John Burroughs and Walt Whitman were good friends and influenced each other in many ways. When they visited together at Ocean Grove, NJ in September of 1883, Darwin was one of the main topics of conversation. In the following discussion of influence of Whitman on Burroughs concerning evolution at that time, I will draw from Burroughs’s journals and letters, and from the essay “A Salt Breeze”, which was written in direct response to the Ocean Grove trip and was published in 1886 in Signs and Seasons.

That Whitman’s visit was important to Burroughs is clear from his journal entry the day after Whitman’s arrival:

Walt Whitman came yesterday and his presence and companionship act like a cordial upon me that nearly turns my head. The great bard on my right-hand and the sea upon my left – the thoughts of the one equally grand with the suggestions and elemental heave of the other (journal entry, September 27, 1883).

In many different ways Burroughs calls attention to his personal preoccupation with evolution, and to the influence of Whitman on his thoughts.

For example, Burroughs writes in a letter from Ocean Grove to his friend Myron Benton that Whitman’s poetry is filled with the “grand drama of evolution.” (qtd. in Renehan 153). He also borrows phrases and imagery from Whitman, in particular the phrase “cradle endlessly rocking” which he uses in two different contexts when referring to the sea. In his journal he writes “At Ocean Grove again since last Sunday by the ‘cradle endlessly rocking.’” (journal entry, September 21, 1883; before Whitman arrived). Then, in the opening section of “A Salt Breeze,” while discussing the influence of movements of the earth’s crust on the motion of the sea, he writes:

Thus ‘the cradle endlessly rocking’ of which our poet sings is not only bestrode with winds and swung by the punctual hands of the tides, but the fairest summer weather gives it a nudge, and the bending of the floor beneath it contributes an impulse. (161)

This phrase is a reference to Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859; coincidently the same year as Origin of Species), and for Burroughs the phrase is suggestive of evolution for in the next breath he says “Darwin seems to think [the sea] is the cradle where the primordial life of the globe has its infancy” (161).

John Burroughs’s fascination with the sea and it’s significance for the origins of life goes even deeper. The entire opening section of the essay is suffused with the vocabulary of evolution and geologic time. The opening section begins:

When one first catches the smell of the sea, his lungs seem voluntarily to expand, the same as they do when he steps into the open air after long confinement indoors. On the beach he is simply emerging into a larger and more primitive out of doors. There before him is aboriginal space and the breath of it thrills and dilates his body. He stands at the open door of the continent and eagerly drinks the large air. This breeze savors of the original element; it is a breath out of the morning of the world – bitter, but so fresh and tonic! (159)

And ends:

Whether or not [the sea] rocked man, or the germ of man, into being, there can be little doubt that it will continue to rock after he and all things else are wrapped in the final sleep (161).

Throughout the essay Burroughs sprinkles remarks alluding to evolution:

...the sea, whose law is mutation, changes not (163)

This is part of the vague fascination of the shore; ‘t is the boundary of two worlds. With your feet upon the present, you confront the aboriginal time and space (163).

the veritable ocean brine there before one, the continental, primordial, original liquid, the hoary, eternal sea itself (165)

Finally, in the concluding section of the essay, Burroughs discusses poetry about the sea, and finds, to no one’s surprise, that only Whitman has the requisite “sea salt” to write good sea poetry. He emphasizes this with quotations from Whitman’s poetry, several of which contain evolutionary references. For instance, from “Song of Myself” are quoted the lines:

Sea of stretched groundswells,
Sea of breathing broad and convulsive breaths,
Sea of the brine of life, and of unshovell’d yet
 always ready graves. (171)

And from “With Husky Haughty Lips, O Sea” (written by Whitman during his stay with Burroughs at Ocean Grove and quoted in its entirety in “A Salt Breeze”) the concluding lines are also suggestive of evolution:

The first and last confession of the globe,
Outsurging, muttering from thy soul’s abysms,
The tale of cosmic elemental passion,
Thou tellest to a kindred soul. (172)

In John Burroughs’s eyes Walt Whitman was identified with the sea. “Whitman is essentially the shore,” he comments early in the essay, and he bears this identification out with a curious transformation that comes over his writings between the time of the visit and the time of composing the essay. In his journal, Burroughs wrote of Whitman “there is something grainy and saline about him,” (September 29, 1883) whereas in “A Salt Breeze’ Burroughs uses the same words to describe the sea itself, “the grainy, saline voice of the sea.”

It is in this frame of mind that Burroughs finished his reading of Origin of Species, and wrote that it was a “true wonder book.” Why then, over the next 40 years, did Burroughs’s conviction about “Darwin’s dangerous idea” (as it was characterized by Dennet) weaken? If Walt Whitman was as strong an influence on Burroughs’s acceptance of Darwin’s theory as writings like “A Salt Breeze” suggest, it may have simply been that the passing of the years, and the passing of Whitman himself in 1892, allowed Burroughs’s older, and stronger, predilections to resurface. Looking back on the last years of Whitman’s life in a letter to Clara Barrus, Burroughs admitted that “I had not grown cold toward him, but I saw less of him, and was not so active a disciple as I had been (qtd. in Renehan 169).

There were, however, many aspects of Darwin’s work in which Burroughs and Whitman were in agreement, most importantly concerning the role of human emotions in understanding a world bounded by science and described by philosophy. In his retrospective monograph on Whitman, Burroughs’s writes:

In all cases Whitman’s vision is as large as that of science, but it is always the vision of a man and not of a philosopher. His report of the facts has an imaginative lift and a spiritual significance which the man of science cannot give them (Whitman: A Study 286-7). This sentiment reflects Whitman’s own opinion that the poet is the nexus wherein science and metaphysics find their expression:

Meantime, the highest and subtlest and broadest truths of modern science wait for their true assignment and last vivid flashes of light...through first class metaphysicians and speculative philosophs – laying the basements and foundations for those new, more expanded, more harmonious, more melodious, freer American poems. (Collect 278).

Although Whitman accepted Darwin as a great scientist and theorist, he was emphatic that the insights of science were limited and needed to be unified with metaphysics through poetry:

Unspeakably precious as [the tenets of the evolutionists] are to biology, and henceforth indispensable to the right aim and estimate in study, they neither comprise or [sic] explain everything – and the last word or whisper still remains to be breathed, after the utmost of those claims, floating high and forever above them all, and above metaphysics (Specimen Days 321).

For John Burroughs, the need for good poetry may not have been paramount, but he agreed with Whitman that it is important for humans to retain a healthy respect for that which we cannot see or understand, as he says here in his final critique of Darwin:

He who sees nothing transcendent and mysterious in the universe does not see deeply; he lacks the vision without which the people perish (Last Harvest 181).

Burroughs’s enthusiasm for Darwin seems to have been encouraged by Whitman’s own enthusiasm especially during their stay at Ocean Grove, NJ in 1883. As time went on, and the influence of Whitman weakened, Burroughs’s enthusiasm became tempered by his religious background and his belief in immanence in nature. In the end, he and Whitman both agree, however, that science is not the only way to understand nature, but that one needs to combine scientific understanding with philosophy, and pass it all through the lens of human emotions and aesthetic sensibilities.

I would like to acknowledge the help of Ron Patkus and Dean Rogers (VC Special Collections) in finding many of these documents, and Steve Mercier who read an early draft and offered many helpful comments.

Jeff Walker is Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, Vassar College

  1. Beaver, J. Walt Whitman – Poet of Science, New York: Octagon, 1974.
  2. Burroughs, J. Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, New York: American News Company, 1867.
  3. Burroughs, J. Signs and Seasons, 1886, edited and with critical commentary by J. Walker, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006.
  4. Burroughs, J. Whitman: A Study Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1896.
  5. Burroughs, J. Time and Change, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1912.
  6. Burroughs, J. The Last Harvest Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1921.
  7. Burroughs, J. journal entries, August and September. 1883, Vassar College Special Collections.
  8. Dennett, Daniel, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991
  9. Hoeveler, J. David. The Evolutionists: American Thinkers Confront Charles Darwin, 1860-1920, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.
  10. Renehan, E. John Burroughs, An American Naturalist, Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 1992.
  11. Tanner, J. T. F. “Charles Darwin (1809-1882)” in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, LeMaster, J. R. and Kummings, D. D., eds., New York: Garland, 1998.
  12. Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol 4, 1953.
  13. Whitman, Walt, “Specimen Days” in The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1902.
  14. Whitman, Walt, “Collect” in The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1902.