Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Burroughs, John [1837-1921] and Ursula [1836-1917]
Author:
Sarracino, Carmine
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

John Burroughs first met Whitman in 1864, while Burroughs was in Washington, D.C., looking for work. After his marriage to Ursula North in 1857, Burroughs foundered financially. Against the wishes of his conventional wife, who had grown up in affluence as the daughter of a prosperous New York farmer, Burroughs hoped to become a writer, thus his interest in Walt Whitman. In 1862 he had frequently visited Pfaff's beer cellar, a bohemian watering hole and the center of literary life in Manhattan. There Burroughs championed Whitman in literary arguments, anticipating at every moment a meeting with the poet himself.

That meeting did not take place at Pfaff's, but rather by chance on the streets of Washington, D.C., as Whitman made his way to an army hospital to tend wounded soldiers. Always trying to recruit fresh help, Whitman invited Burroughs to come along. In an earlier desperate attempt at employment, Burroughs had briefly worked on a crew that buried Union soldiers whose bodies were transported to Washington. Nursing the horribly wounded was as repugnant to Burroughs as handling mangled corpses, and he soon left his job in the hospitals. But Burroughs and Whitman, who quickly began calling him "Jack," had struck up an enduring friendship.

Whitman encouraged Burroughs to develop a literature of nature that was scientifically precise in its observations and factuality and at the same time poetic in its praise of nature. Under Whitman's guidance, Burroughs developed as a writer and began to sell pieces to magazines while working as a clerk for the Department of Treasury and, later, as a bank examiner. Burroughs in turn influenced Whitman by sharpening Whitman's eye for precise detail in observing nature.

Whitman became a regular guest at the Burroughs's house for Sunday breakfast. He befriended Ursula, nicknaming her "Ursa." The Burroughs's marriage had been strained from the outset by sexual incompatibility; Whitman attempted to reconcile the two.

Even though their courtship had been completely chaste, John's attraction to the slender, attractive Ursula North had been powerfully erotic, perhaps even solely erotic. On their wedding night, however, the devoutly religious Ursula portentously fell to her knees at the side of the bed they would share for the first time and urged John to join her in prayer. After five troubled years of marriage, Ursula consulted ministers in Olive, her hometown in the Catskills, and concluded that her husband's sexual demands were immoral and intolerable. She prescribed a separation of two months, July and August of 1862, so that John could learn the value of chastity. The separation, however, lasted until February of 1864, by which time John had learned not the value of chastity but rather the ease of finding accommodating female company. Even after their reunion, John remained unfaithful.

Whitman sided with Ursula. He told John that his "wantonness" was the one flaw in an otherwise beautiful and admirable character. As for Ursula's sexual unresponsiveness, Whitman blamed it on John's failure sufficiently to inspire Ursula to love him. Whitman frequently visited the lonely Ursula when John's job as bank examiner required him to travel, as it often did. In 1873 Whitman's visits suddenly ceased because of the stroke he suffered; Ursula, in turn, then became a frequent visitor to the ailing poet, bringing him food and taking him out for carriage rides. She even offered him a room in the Burroughs's Washington home at 1332 V Street, which offer Whitman appreciated but declined.

Burroughs's first work on Whitman was Notes on Walt Whitman (1867). The work was so extensively revised and rewritten by Whitman himself that it should properly be considered a collaborative effort. In it we see Whitman shaping his public personality, even at the expense of accurate biography; for example, Whitman is alleged to have traveled to the Western United States, although in fact his first such trip took place decades later.

In Whitman, A Study (1896), his second major work on the poet, Burroughs is, as always, the Whitman disciple, but he turns his naturalist's eye on Whitman as an original specimen: a poet whose work transcends the usual categories of art, who is as much the prophet as the poet. Whitman was commonly attacked for his lack of artistic polish and literary refinement; Burroughs and others defended him against these charges by in turn attacking the limitations of "the literary."

In 1901, nine years after Whitman's death, John Burroughs met the great love of his life, Clara Barrus, who was a physician affiliated with the state psychiatric hospital at Middletown, New York. She wrote Burroughs an admiring letter, and he invited her to visit him at Slabsides, his "hermit's retreat" about a mile from Riverby, the home he had built on the banks of the Hudson. Barrus was 33, Burroughs 64; he referred to her as "Whitmanesque," a "new woman" who was his intellectual equal as well as his lover. She became his live-in companion after Ursula's death in 1917, and then his literary executor and biographer.

Bibliography 

Barrus, Clara. Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Burroughs, John. Birds and Poets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1877.

____. Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person. New York: American News, 1867.

____. "The Poet of the Cosmos." Accepting the Universe. By Burroughs. New York: Wise, 1924. 316–328.

____. Whitman, A Study. 1896. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly, 1970.

Renehan, Edward J., Jr. John Burroughs, An American Naturalist. Post Mills, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 1992.

Wyman, Mary A. "Burroughs and Whitman—Naturalist and Mystic." The Lure for Feeling in the Creative Process. New York: Philosophical Library, 1960. 104–128.  


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