Chapter X
Teacher And Student

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

John's desire to teach had come about in a purely imitative way. Other youths in Delaware County who had had the ambition to do something besides "farm it" had gone down to Ulster County and taught school, so when he was casting about for means of earning money he followed their example, not so much because of an inclination to teach, as that it seemed the most likely way in which to earn the money to send himself to school.

Motor parties going around the Ashokan Reservoir, that stupendous engineering feat by means of which New York City is supplied with its Catskill water, may note a signboard on the southern shore indicating Tongore, two miles away. In that obscure hamlet, at the foot of Olive mountain, in a little red school house, still standing, John Burroughs began his career as teacher, on April 11, 1854, shortly after his seventeenth birthday. His wages, as we have learned, were ludicrously meagre, and in boarding round he sometimes fared pretty poorly with the sour bread and "frowy" butter occasionally set before him. At one place, boiled potatoes and salt constituted the entire meal. Once a rickety bedstead broke down with him during the night, but he clung to the wreck till morning and said nothing about it even then. As a rule, however, he fared well, sometimes even sumptuously, "Teacher" usually being treated to warm biscuit and honey, or pie, for supper, in addition to the regular fare. There was pie for supper, pie for breakfast, and pie for his dinner-pail -- in fact, he says his early piety is probably responsible for the digestive troubles that have clung to him throughout maturer years.

Twenty or thirty pupils comprised his first school, their ages ranging from six to thirteen. He can recall the names and faces of most of them to-day, especially a slender, clean-cut girl, a little fat, freckle-faced girl, a thin talkative girl with a bulging forehead, and three of the boys who became soldiers, and fell in the battle of Gettysburg.

He had a good school, not so much because of skill as a disciplinarian, as that he secured the good will of the pupils, and could impart knowledge easily. He was himself, he admits, crude and callow; full of vague aspirations; undisciplined; unsophisticated; bashful, and given to stuttering when embarrassed.

Some of his first wages as a teacher went for a Letter Writer, purchased of a peddler, from which he modelled stilted epistles to his sweetheart Mary. The timid answers in her graceful, girlish hand are still preserved, but what would one not give to see the absurd letters which called hers forth! Granther Kelly died that season, and John modelled a letter of condolence to his people upon one in the book, cringing in later years to think how absurd and unreal it must have sounded to his family.

A work on phrenology occupied many spare hours during that term, and a dollar and a half of his wages procured a chart of his head, the young philosopher beginning thus early to heed the injunction, Know Thyself.

Sometimes of a Sunday he sat restively in a pew of the Old Methodist meeting-house. It is to be hoped his father never knew it; although it was not the free grace of the Methodist doctrine that so much attracted him as the natural grace of certain maidens who frequented that church; these compensated for his sacrificial chafings under the long sermons of Dominie Barber, whose discourse was "like a dog chasing his own tail." Once he went forward at a revival meeting there, but when the miraculous change which he expected did not come, he decided to work out his own salvation in some other way.

That was a long summer to him. He had never been away from home more than a day or two at a time before, and was often homesick. But though longing for a sight of the old hills, he stuck it out until the term ended in October, then took with him a chum, a brother of one of the girls for whom he had a passing fancy. He also took fifty dollars of his wages, -which precious money, with a little more earned on the farm, paid his board and tuition for three happy months that winter at the Hedding Literary Institute at Ashland, N. Y.

It was a joyous youth who started out in late November, the time of year when the farmers took their butter to the Catskill market. John, on the high spring seat, made the journey with his father as full of eager excitement as when, a lad of eleven, he had first taken the trip.

There were two hundred or more youths and maidens at the Institute. John was present at the dedicatory exercises in the chapel. His studies were algebra, geometry, grammar, chemistry, French, and logic. He was also required to write compositions, and to deliver declamations. The untried ever has its charms: John chose logic because he had never heard of it before. Their class met at seven in the morning in the dimly lighted chapel. Instead of logic, the young ladies of the school took a course in Wayland's Moral Philosophy, for which their masculine schoolfellows had a withering contempt. Both sexes parsed from Paradise Lost, a poem of which, I venture to say, youths of to-day have scarcely read a line. When John came upon Milton's account of the celestial warfare, at first astonished, he soon shocked his school-fellows by declaring he did not believe a word of it.

About this time his bent toward writing developed conspicuously, his compositions usually receiving favourable comment. The opening sentence of an out-door essay written while there still lingers in his memory: " The last sun of 1854 was gilding the tops of the western hills."

In recent years when urged to recount his life at the Ashland Institute, he says there is but little he recalls. He remembers when his parents came to see him, bringing mince pies, doughnuts and other goodies from home, and staying with him a few hours. He can see yet how queer his parents, country folk that they were, looked and felt in those strange surroundings. His elder brothers came also on sleigh-rides with their "girls." There is one incident, absurdly unimportant, which he recalls with amusement:

    I remember the old cow I saw break through the ice into a cistern of water-it was a hogshead sunk in the ground -- I had seen her nosing around it for some time, trying first one foot, then the other, when suddenly the ice gave way and in she fell, her tail hanging over the edge. She would have drowned if I had not given the alarm. Some of us got hold of her horns, and some of her tail, but the more we pulled her tail up, the more her head went down. With planks and things we at last succeeded in rescuing her from her cold bath, but we nearly pulled her tail out by the roots.

That winter the young student bought a French Dictionary and Blair's Rhetoric from a Texas boy who was hard up. He studied the rhetoric diligently the following summer, though with little benefit, he thinks, and soon traded it off for other books. He still has the dictionary.

About this time some lectures by a Doctor Lardner fell into his hands. He remembers the elaborate arguments of one of them in which the writer conclusively proved that a steamship could never carry enough coal to take her across the ocean; but as it was not long after reading those arguments that he learned of a steamship going across, his confidence in logic received a severe shaking up.

Toward spring John was one of the disputants in a public debate. The Crimean War was then on; they debated this question, John taking the side of England and France against Russia. He was the first to speak. He remembers getting much of his ammunition from Harper's Magazine. His fellow on the affirmative had, unfortunately, levied on the same source, so was up a stump in earnest when his turn came, but in spite of that, their side won.

Among his schoolboy keepsakes I find a letter from one of the Ashland pupils, E. Bogart, whose quaint handwriting and stilted phraseology reveal other times than ours. It mentions certain current news items of their day which have long been regarded by us as historical. Young Bogart writes:

    ... I presume you have heard of the death of the Emperor Nicholas, the taking of Sebastopol, and also of Dr. Kane's return from the search for Sir John Franklin.... but with the events and circumstances peculiar to my own private life, perhaps you are not so familiar....

And he proceeds to tell, in a stilted way, of changing from that "honourable, honest, primeval employment of Adam's progeny, viz., a tiller of the soil," to that of a "trainer of youth."

I find among those schoolboy possessions a little memorandum-book by J. Burroughs, bearing the dates 1853-1854. His handwriting from the ages of sixteen to seventeen, graceful yet forceful, showed a tendency to shading and ornamentation. The spelling was poor. Spelling always has been one of his weak points. To this day he confesses he would be spelled down on certain words, for example, separate, vegetable, mosquito, chipmunk, and terrestrial. (At one time, a few years ago, he consented to join the Simplified Spelling League, thinking himself in favour of it, (gas all poor spellers are," but on finding himself flooded with their "literature," he bolted, declaring it a great nuisance, adding humorously, "besides, it's harder than the old way.")

The little notebook just referred to is an amusing hodgepodge: Several pages of algebraic formulae are followed by a record of the days he taught in his first school. On one page are directions for dancing the quadrille (probably made during the apple-cut period, before leaving home):

    Right and left - 4
    Balance - 4
    Ladies change (sic!)
    Promenade Balance all
    Swing-Adamant (sic!) left
    All promenade, etc., etc.

"What does that mean-'adamant left'?" I ask of its recorder.

" I don't know -- it was something that sounded like that, I suppose -- I never questioned it-we used to say it that way in calling off."

Racking my brain, I tried to recall what it was they used to say in the days when I threaded the mazes of the quadrille. Finally it came to mehis "adamant" was "Allemand" -- to the German, even in those days, was attributed some of the adamantine quality we have come to associate with him in recent times.

Here is the entry which fixes the date of his first letter from Mary, his Roxbury sweetheart, others being duly recorded later. Next come entries in his expense accountstationery, horse and buggy, supper and fiddler's bills, hat, coat and vest, gloves, a ring, shoes, cards-the swain was attending to his wardrobe then (probably while teaching at Tongore), taking his "girl" out to drive (evidently not Mary, but some nearer charmer), and treating her to suppers.

Following this is a list of those first studies at Ashland, with the hours of recitation-algebra, geometry, French, Kemistry (sic!), physiology, and logick!

Now we come upon grandiloquent passages, evidently copied from things he has read. " I suppose I thought that was good style"; be laughs as he reads the sentences that so impressed him then, and recalls how sorry he once felt for a boy in the Ashland school, who in a composition having used the expression "the endless ages of eternity," was compelled by the teacher to strike out" endless" as superfluous" I thought it was too bad-that sounded so fine! "

Here is a list of schoolboy names-some committee in the debating-club at the Institute; then some undecipherable notes on logic, this time without the k. Here are groups of mere phrases, "halo of genius " is one. " That was probably a new expression to me," he explained. " Oh, those days of the callow youth when he is taken with words, words! he has no ideas, so the more grandiloquent a thing is, the more it takes his fancy. Oratory was more to the front then than was the art of writing. I guess boys of to-day like less beating about the bush, and simpler, more direct methods."

Now we come upon scraps, evidently his own, and now citations from the Bible.

Next comes his sweetheart record, the dates when he called on various girls-one Melissa and two Marys axe on the list.

The beginnings of compositions evidently suggested by his studies in physiology follow next, and fragments of sentences. He seems to have been meditating on several subjects, and trying various ways of saying the same thing. More extended fragments follow, then mere jottings of words-strabismus, ennui, predestination-then various anatomical terms, and more Biblical citations.

At the last is a defence of phrenology. "It was partly my own, I suppose," he explained, "and partly from the Phrenological Journal. I must have been trying to string those sentences together-poor, high-flown stuff! I had no ideas and was just playing with words, you see. I suppose that is the way many begin to write."

At the close of the April term at the Institute, after a short stay at home, with ten dollars advanced by his father, he made his first journey to the city of New York, going by steamer, his main object being to find a position for the summer as teacher in New Jersey. He had in his pocket a letter of recommendation from the principal at Ashland, a document stating that John Burroughs was competent to give instruction in the branches usually taught in district schools, and that the writer could cordially recommend him as "a gentlemanly, earnest, and faithful young man."

Of that first ride on the steam-cars, from Jersey City to Plainfield, he remembers chiefly his anxiety as he sat waiting for the train to start. He actually wondered if the starting would be so sudden as to jerk his hat off! Herecalls but little about the train itself, except that the brakeman stood outside and worked a wheel-it was long before air-brakes were in vogue.

Finding one school still unsupplied in New Jersey, he walked twelve miles to see its trustees, who, on looking im over, decided he was too young and inexperienced for their school. So it was a crestfallen youth who stayed that night at a little inn in the village. The occultation of Venus by the Moon, which occurred that night, held him long and long. In the morning he tramped the twelve miles back to Somerville and turned reluctantly toward home.

In passing through New York that day he spent several hours loitering about the streets and hunting up the phrenological establishment of Fowler & Wells, but, on finding it, could not muster up courage to enter, though he walked back and forth past the place many times, peering wistfully in at the windows.

Probably one of the most important experiences of his life occurred right here: It needed no courage to approach those shabby little secondhand book-stalls which stood along the curbstones in William Street. They were under his very nose, and the humble vendors in no way intimidated him. He browsed from stall to stall for nearly half a day, unmindful of all other attractions in the great city.

Handling eagerly book after book, he dipped into them here and there, books which to have owned would have made him as rich as Crooesus. At length, having singled out quite a sizable pile, he timidly inquired the cost. As the vendor was looking them over to estimate the price, he took out his money and began counting it. Curiously enough, or so it seemed to him (the shrewd vendor doubtless having seen the extent of his cash), the books came to eight dollars-just about what he had left. Then began the harrowing process of deciding which of the selected books he would keep, which forego. He already had his return ticket on the boat to Kingston, but there was the stage-fare, also supper and breakfast, to be reckoned with. But the books won. He could go hungry for them. They would last after his hunger was forgotten. If he paid his fare on the stage as far as Dimmick's Corners, he could easily walk the remaining twelve miles. So, after a little further sifting and weighing, he gave up a few of the books, but still had a goodly pile left, and excitedly packing these into his bag, was soon lugging them up the gangplank of the Hudson River steamer bound for Kingston.

A peep, as it were, into that black oilcloth bag shows us: Saint Pierre's Studies of Nature, Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding, Dr. Johnson's Works, Spurzheim's Phrenology, the Works of Thomas Dick, a Scottish philosopher, and one or two others. All of these cherished volumes, except the works of Dick, are still on the shelves of his study to-day. He had been attracted by the opening sentence in the first volume of Dick-" Man is a compound being." It had whetted his appetite, but he soon got all he wanted of Dick, and later traded his works off for others. "What twaddle it all was!" is his comment now concerning Dick.

From Kingston he rode as far on the stage-coach as his money would take him, then walked the remaining twelve miles home. As he crossed the mountain, carrying the heavy books, his pockets were empty, and his stomach was empty, but his heart was light because of the very weight he bore.

This was only one of many extravagances at those old book-stalls. For years, whenever he visited New York City, he hovered around them as a bee around a buckwheat field. Nearly all the copies of English classics in his library were, from time to time, picked up at those curb-stone stalls.

It was on a subsequent visit to New York that our verdant youth had an experience with the confidence men. He stopped at a Peter Funk auction, where watches were selling cheap, and bid one in for six dollars. No sooner had he bought the watch than a man standing near told him the watch was no good; that it had no lever; and that he better pay a little more and select a watch he could examine and be sure about. He had handed the salesman a ten dollar bill and received four dollars in change, but on his second selection of a watch, he found its price to be ten dollars. So they got all he had, while he found later that although he had bought two watches, he had been "sold" in both deals-the ostensibly friendly bystander had been a wily accomplice of Peter Funk.

Though working on the home farm, he spent much of that summer of 1855 in reading. He sauntered in the familiar fields and woods with Locke, Spurzheim, Saint Pierre and Johnson for companions. These weighty books were not, however, the only ones he read for he devoured his first novel that summer-Charlotte Temple, reading all one night, finishing it in the early morning just before going out to the hayfield. How the homely scenes revolted him that day! The novel had lot loose a flood of emotion in him, very probably causing- some loss of appetite, for a time, for Locke and Johnson.

In the fall he again set out to look for a school, thinking to try again in New Jersey, but stopping at Olive by the way, was persuaded to teach again in the school at Tongore, and at double his former wages-the munificent sum of twenty-two dollars a month, and board. It was at this time that he first saw a postage stamp. During this term he met Ursula North, a handsome dark-eyed niece of one of the trustees, a meeting which sealed his fate.

The books of the pompous Johnson were now beginning to get in their work. During this second term of teaching young Burroughs practised at essay-writing a good deal, deliberately modelling his essays on the Johnsonian style, not having learned that big words do not necessarily mean big thoughts. After a little he gave up this imitation of Johnson, but even then was slow in perceiving that the secret of good writing is to bring yourself face to face with your reader.

The first appearance of John Burroughs in print was in May, 1856, in a little country newspaper in Delaware County, the Bloomville Mirror. In that first literary venture he adopted the pen name, Philomath, a lover of learning. His article, about Spiritualism, was in reply to a too credulous writer in a previous issue. How Philomath did haul that poor writer over the coals for his unreasoning credulity! Abounding in big words when simpler ones would do, the article expressed impatience at the gullibility and superstition of the adversary; and derision at his acceptance of "proofs" that were not proofs; it was, in fact, unmercifully critical; yet showed clearness and force, and, on the whole, was a remarkable production for a youth of nineteen. Already one discerns the independent thinker, the eager searcher after truth, the uncompromising hater of shams. This effusion came out when he was in the first flush of student days at Cooperstown Seminary, whither he went in the spring of 1856.

During those three months at the Seminary, he continued the study of mathematics and French, took up Latin, and studied English literature. He stood first in composition in the whole school, debated in the Websterian Society, and on the Fourth of July delivered an oration on the shore of Lake Otsego, in true spread-eagle style. A Seminary program of exercises of that year states that one of the Websterian debates was: Resolved that the career of Mahomet was more beneficial than injurious to the world; and that J. Burroughs was speaker on the affirmative.

A few years ago in ransacking some old papers in his study, we came upon a schoolboy essay, "Work and Wait," written by him at Cooperstown that July (1856). It is a serious-minded production, whatever else may be said of it. It was fun to watch its author as, holding the yellowed paper, he read aloud, with mock solemnity and exaggerated rhetorical effect, this early effort-the shaded, ornate handwriting, the poor spelling, the platitudes, the grandiloquent passages, the moralizing,, all coming in for a share of his ridicule. The gist of the composition is shown in the title; success comes only by patient effort; facts in nature, history, and biography were solemnly set forth to prove the point:

    Let no one be captivated with the vain conceit that he was born great, and that he may attain real excellence without labour and application. It is not a thing obtained so easily; it is not a bauble to be purchaced [sic!] by a groat, nor an unsubstantial fairy thing to be wooed and won by the wishing only. It must be corted [sic!] with patience and assiduity.

And so it continues, tracing the career of the dauntless workers in life's battle who breast the storm with every prop knocked from under them; who conquer in spite of all attempts to frustrate them; who force all opposition to yield to them-men who are the "pillers [sic!] of the state," the bulwarks of the church -- "men who ever stand firm upon their principles amid the fluctuating waves of party politics, or the howling blasts of popular opinion." One can fairly hear the youthful orator's eloquence ring through the academic halls!

Happily, while at Cooperstown, the ease and grace of Addison and Lamb caused the plastic, imitative student to swing away from the pomposity of Dr. Johnson. In poetry his taste was then for Pope and Young. He knew nothing of Chaucer or Spenser, and little of Shakespeare. As for Emerson, when he took his first bite of him that summer, "it was like tasting green apples." Other mental stimuli were furnished by lecturers (Parke Benjamin and others came there through the efforts of the students' debating society), likewise by the sermons of a Universalist preacher in the town, a man who "had a direct and pointed style, like an essay." John and a chum used to go often to hear him, though most of the teachers and students disapproved. "They were afraid of Universalism," he explained, "afraid that everybody would go to heaven."

A never-to-be-forgotten thing happened to him one evening as he was walking alone down the main street in Cooperstown-he saw his first author! Following him from afar in the twilight, he looked upon him with an awe and reverence never before felt for any human being. The man was an obscure author of a history of Poland, but to the imaginative, aspiring youth who had just felt the joy of seeing himself reflected in the Bloomville Mirror, that glimpse of a real live writer was a momentous experience.

There were, however, games and other activities and interests that vied with literature and literary aspirations during that term; rowing on the lake, baseball, and other sports claimed a fair share of time. That love of comrades, always strong in him, was not confined entirely to those of his own sex, is testified to by several demurelywritten letters (in pale blue ink, on dainty diminutive pale pink or white embossed sheets), despatched to him after he had left school, and preserved by him throughout the years.

A program of the Students' Exhibition, held that summer at school-close, announced, among other interesting items, an essay by John Burroughs, entitled " Goodness Essential to Greatness" -- not a bad conviction for a youth to hold in starting out on his career!

With that three months at the Cooperstown Seminary our student's schooling ended. All that he achieved thereafter was from the push of his own endeavour.

His funds were low as he started for home; but riding all night in the stage, he was carried as fax as Stamford and there set down at daylight in front of the tavern, whence he trudged hungrily across the Hardscrabble mountain to his home. "In those days," he said, "I could go all day without eating, or I could eat all dayjust as it happened."

By a curious coincidence there fell into my hands a few years ago a letter written by John Burroughs at the age of nineteen to one of his Cooperstown classmates. I hope it is not taking an unfair advantage of that youth to quote it as a sample of how boys wrote to one another in 1856:

      Roxbury, N. Y., August 4, 1856


    In compliance with your request, and in keeping of my own promise, I sit down to indulge in a "silent chat" with my quondam class-mate, friend Paine. Social intercourse is said to be the source of the most refined and lasting pleasures that it is the prerogative of man to enjoy, because it calls into action the highest faculties of his nature. Whether this be true in every case, we will not presume to determine, but it accords with my own experience thus far: that the friendly exchange of thought and feeling, whether it be by the tongue or pen, with those who have shared with us the pleasures and pains of life (especially a student's life) and who have not infrequently contributed to our success, is one of the most delightful privileges that I can enjoy. But I am too serious and speculative. How have you been prospering since you left the Sem? What is your employment? "Ploughing the classic soil?" Conjugating Latin verbs? 0, deliver me from such an ordeal, from the arem and arer! I presume, though, you are not wandering in such misty labyrinths, but at that other more natural employment for which your genius is so peculiarly adapted, courting the favour of the Muses.

    Go ahead-may they guide your pen and inspire your thoughts!

    I have been exercising my physical powers since I left Cooperstown. I have been wielding the scythe more than "the old grey quill." You know the body must work as well as the mind in order to preserve the equilibrium, and fit the man for accomplishing "big things." No one can have a strong mind without a healthy body, and no one can have a healthy body without physical labour -- work, therefore, if you would be somebody.

    How are all our schoolmates that live in your country? tres bien, I hope. Remember me to them kindly, especially the ladies, for you know I would not like to be forgotten by them.

    What are your prospects for the future? I think of embarking soon on a southern expedition, if friend Keyes does not disappoint me. I hope Fortune's breeze may waft us triumphantly to the haven of success. Exert yourself, Paine, if you go back to Cooperstown. Let your mark stand high up the pilgrim's pathway. He who aims at the moon will shoot higher than if he levels his gun at a tree. This is true in morals as well as in sporting.

    We had some grand times at the Sem, did we not, Paine? Do you remember the morning that we went to see "Old Dame Nature"? She is a kind old lady! In her lap are pearls of the richest hue, treasures richer than Pluto's mines, and she deals them out with a bountiful hand to all who are pure enough to appreciate them. Think you we will ever have any more such times, Paine? "Life is but a flower that blossoms and is gone." And its leaves may fall ere we meet again, but I hope not. I hear the rain drops spattering against my window. It makes me rejoice for it has not rained before in a long time-it has been very dry.

    But I must close this hasty scroll. Write soon. I may be gone from home in two weeks. My compliments to your sister. Adieu.

Yours truly,


    L. B. PAINE, Gent.,

    Garrattsville, N. Y.

Stilted schoolboy letter that this is, it reveals certain traits which have been characteristic throughout the life of its writer-love of comrades, an early, abiding, and pronounced leaning toward feminine society, distaste for drudgery, a wholesome commingling of physical and intellectual activity, concern for the preservation of good health, love of nature, an ingrained tendency to reminiscence, and a strong vein of sentiment counter-balanced by practicality.

The next move the youth made was to go West. After the fall work was done on the farm, borrowing fifty dollars from his brother Curtis, he set out (1856) for a little town in Illinois, called Buffalo Grove, near Polo. He had been attracted there by letters from friends he had known at the Ashland school. There he again engaged in school teaching, and during the six or seven months' stay, grew rapidly in mental stature. Several things contributed to this besides his own thirst for knowledge and his philosophical bent: he was surrounded by intelligent and congenial friends, he had the stimulus of improving lectures, and access to a good library, but perhaps most of all was the sudden kindling of interest in Emerson. Ready for him now, he devoured everything of his that he could find. He often says that he should like to believe that the young men of to-day find in Emerson what he found sixty and more years ago, when his startling affirmations put to flight a vast array of commonplace facts; when Emerson could whet his appetite for high ideals by referring to that hunger that could "eat the solar system like ginger-cake."

Yes, Emerson held him captive. He was Jonah in the Great Whale's belly. He could not get away from him, nor did he want to get away. Nature herself seemed to speak to him through Emerson, and the ardent, plastic youth was willingly enthralled.

During that winter at Buffalo Grove he saw himself in print for the second time, in an essay called " Revolutions," a florid, declamatory account of the progress of eivilization from East to West. Here is a sentence from that early effort:

    They [revolutions] are but the shocks from the car of Progress which so far from indicating the slackening of its speed, are the sure evidences of its increasing velocity.

(One would fain take comfort in this thought in the midst of the Bolshevism of to-day!)

"Don't waste your time over it," he advised, seeing me reading it. "It's chaff, chaff-no wheat there." When reminded that there were truths in it, he said, "Yes, but only second-hand truths-nothing that I had thought out for myself. It was all the result of reading a book whose battle-cry was 'Westward the Star of Empire makes its way!' "

A young Scot whom he had hired to assist him in the school, having a printing-press, set up this essay for him. " I had given him a watchchain that had cost me twenty dollars," he explained, "for which he never paid me, but gave me this instead -- I'd rather had the twenty dollars."

That winter's work enabled him to add more books to his little library, books which he purchased at a little store in the village of Polo, of Dr. James More.

In passing through Chicago on his way home, he had his picture taken -- a daguerreotype-probably the first picture he had ever had taken, certainly the first one extant. It shows a finely modelled brow, observant eyes, a sensitive mouth-the face of a poet, or a musician, the long brown hair giving it the look often seen in the portraits of certain musical composers. Those flowing locks, however, did not long grace the earnest face. His return was soon followed by his engagement to the girl he had left behind him, and, as she did not like the untrimmed hair which, she said, "made him look like a Methodist minister," compliant to her wishes, he had it shorn in regulation style.

" Oh, why did you do it?" someone asked him, years after, as he was relating humorously how his betrothed objected to the long hair, and she, sitting near, was preening herself, as women will, on having carried her point.

"Maybe he was afraid she wouldn't marry him if he didn't," suggested one.

"Maybe he thought it was safer to have it cut, if he was going to be married'' mischievously ventured Tim Silver, a neighbour sitting near, who, at the same time, ducked his head as though to escape a seizure from the nearby hand of his own wife.

That spring after returning East, John worked on the home farm till July, then taught at High Falls, N. Y., until the following spring, interrupting his teaching in September, 1857, when a little past twenty, to marry Ursula North, an energetic, thrifty, and forceful young woman of simple tastes and country breeding.

By this time he was earnestly reading and studying with a view to fitting himself for writing, although his wife was strongly urging him to abandon such aspirations and go into business. Her objections to his writing, however, were not on the same ground that a fond sister advised against it-" I wouldn't write, John, if I was you," warned Jane, "writing, they say, is bad for the head "

His reading and meditation at this time evidently withdrew much of the interest which should have centred in his school, and he was chagrined at the close of the term to find that the trustee, in whose house they boarded, and who had always seemed friendly, did not offer to hire him again. Absorption in his studies, together with "squabbles among the women folks" -- his wife and the wife of the trustee-were probably jointly responsible for his losing the school.

Back to the farm for the spring and early summer work, then teaching again from July till spring, this was the game of see-saw he played for most of the time between 1854 and 1863. His next school was in the village of Rosendale, on the Rondout, his wife remaining at her father's home, he boarding at the village hotel. His evenings that summer were spent on the river with another youth, "fishing, reciting poetry, and cracking jokes," and his spare time in the berry season, in picking and drying raspberries, preparatory to housekeeping later on.

This period was one of marked mental growth. Two great influences, Nature and literature, were slowly shaping and moulding his life.

A belief in himself and his future held him to the task of teaching, irksome as it was, and poorly paid, since it afforded leisure for study and writing. Though being continually urged to begin a business career, he shrank from anything so foreign to his tastes, begging for more time to prove that he could yet do something with his pen. In one of his letters of that period he pleads:

    You must not expect too much of me at first. I am very young yet and must study and grow, work and wait, before I can take the position in the world I shall be capable of taking....

But in an evil moment he listened to the promptings of ambition, to reiterated advice, and to the plausible claims of a wily harness-maker who had invented a new kind of buckle for a harness-one with a direct draft on the tongue instead of the movable tongue of that then in use. Its inventor had asked the young teacher to make him a drawing of the buckle for the Patent Office, and while complying he had become so interested he decided to invest in the buckle himself. Visions of wealth allured him. He began talking up the buckle to everybody, and his enthusiasm made his hearers enthusiastic, too. A physician in the village, Dr. S---, was carried away by his eloquence, and together they bought the inventor out, he paying down all he could spare, the physician signing the note and agreeing to furnish him a horse and buggy to go about and interest the farmers.

Fired with belief in the invention, and with his glowing visions, he gave up his school in November and went to New Jersey where he had a large quantity of the buckles made, helping with them at the foundry, incidentally learning much about casting; meanwhile borrowing money from his father-in-law to meet the expenses incurred.

He placed buckles in various towns for sale, and still a lot were left on the maker's hands.

Then difficulties about the patent arose. The buckle seemed in some particular to infringe on one already patented. Everything seemed to conspire against the project: The foundry man lost interest in it; the Doctor's interest petered out, too, and he failed to furnish the means for going about to boom the buckle.

In time, he himself developed doubts of ever getting rich out of the venture. These grew to colossal proportions. After three weary months of attempts to get the buckle on the market, his hopes dwindled quite away.

He offered to sell out, but no one wanted his buckle. He was in a predicament. Having invested all his earnings, and some borrowed money-about three hundred dollars in all-he was dismayed to find that his entire capital of enthusiasm was expended also.

A disheartening period of seeking other work followed. He looked into all sorts of things in the effort to please his wife and get into business, but all required capital. A foundry was for sale: he investigated the business in all its details, all the time knowing how futile it was to consider it without funds, yet feeling the need of leaving no stone unturned. At last, convinced of the uselessness of such efforts, he wrote these convictions to his wife, setting forth the utter folly of further attempts to get into business without money, and with debts hanging over him. " To get rich," he wrote, "you must have something to begin with; as the old proverb says, 'To bring home the wealth of the Indies, you must take the wealth of the Indies with you.'

Yet, as these efforts failed, with a lingering hope in the buckle's worth, he even planned going West with it as a salesman, but was soon forced to abandon that plan. And so, trying to whistle to keep up his courage, he told himself that it was not money and time lost, since he had cut his eye teeth now, and would not thus be caught again. At length, all other avenues seeming closed, shutting his eyes to the last glimmer of hope concerning the buckle, he "buckled down" to school-teaching again.

This time he hired out in East Orange, at wages of fifty dollars a month, his spirits rising with something definite again in view, and with leisure once more to pursue his studies. The nearness to New York City was another advantage; he promised himself an occasional trip there to hear Chapin, Beecher, and Everett. On the whole it was a disheartening winter our young friend spent in teaching that East Orange school. He was forlorn and lonely, living in a boarding-house, yet longing for a home. Though already two years married, the young couple had not begun housekeeping, the more practical wife foreseeing difficulties which seemed unsurmountable to her, though made light of by her sanguine spouse.

We sympathize with that earnest, aspiring youth as he unburdens his heart in a letter of that period:

    ... Oh, why is it that trouble and disappointment are the inevitable result of our earthly condition! I look at the stars, I look at the setting sun, I look toward the blue horizon, I ramble through the busy city, I search my own heart, I delve into the sea of books, I struggle with the mysteries of eternity, and nothing satisfactory can I find. All is a sliding sand-bank beneath me. Peace, Beauty, Satisfaction, Rest-where, oh, where can ye be found? . . .

But this is only a mood. Optimism, a practical and forceful handling of details, a sweeping away of trivial objections, and the young couple are soon cosily settled in a little three-room apartment in the suburbs of Newark; the young man walking daily the few miles to his school in East Orange, the tedious grind of teaching supplanting his visions of wealth, now vanished into thin air. Youth and hope are his companions and the sun again shines on his path.

But clouds soon loomed on the horizon which grew bigger and bigger; and those dark clouds over our student's fortunes were but miniatures of the huge black clouds that had long been gathering over the fortunes of the nation.

In the fall of 1859 the raid at Harper's Ferry had taken place. John Brown had been tried and hanged. Henceforth, swift and sinister were the events moving on to the disruption of the Union.

The young nation in its period of storm and stress was typified, in a way, in the checkered career of our struggling, aspiring youth, beset by foes without and within, struggling against an ignoble servitude, fighting desperately for the rights of personal liberty, a definite goal ever in view, yet apparently lost sight of in the indecisions, the compromises, the retrogressions, the countless hampering conditions, that continually thwarted him. With a nation, and an individual, the same holds true: a house divided against itself cannot stand. Half-measures are broken reeds. Before harmony, union, and progress can reign, aims must be unified, rebellions quelled, sacrifices undergone, burdens shouldered, unforgettable losses sustained. Experiments, compromises, humiliations, trials, defeats, victories, victories, defeats, crushing sorrows, and long, long months and years of persistent, heroic effort must be endured before soul, or nation, can reach that goal where victory and union, one and inseparable, are assured, and emancipation accomplished; leaving the aspiring soul, or the nation, free at last to work out its innate destiny.

The cloud looming over our student's fortunes at this time was that almost forgotten note of Dr. S---'s which then fell due. It had to be paid, and the Doctor looked to him to pay it, who, alas! had no money. As the Doctor had not kept his part of the agreement, his young partner in the deal naively wrote him that he would have to meet the note, and wait for him to pay his share when he could.

Again he tried to realize something on the buckles which he had on hand, but in vain. He became more and more worried as the Doctor kept pressing the matter, insisting that he borrow money from his father-in-law to pay the note.

One day just as he was fast sinking into the Slough of Despond over it all, a letter came which boosted his spirits. mightily: A stranger from Rondout wrote inquiring about the new buckle of which he had heard, intimating that he would like to see the owner of it with a view to buying it. Would the owner please come to New York and talk the matter over? Eagerly young Burroughs hurried there, only to learn that it was a sharp game of the Doctor's to get him out of the State of New Jersey and into New York, to arrest him. The stranger on meeting him bluntly informed him he had come to take him to Kingston, unless he would borrow money and pay the note immediately.

This he refused to do, and gave himself up, being too "green" to ask to see the man's warrant. (He had no warrant; it was a bogus arrest, though he knew it not.)

The stranger granted him permission to call on a relative in the city, but stuck to him closer than a brother the while. Through the relative he sent word to his young wife why he would be unable to return home that night then, boarding the Baldwin, on the night trip en route for Kingston, captor and captive engaged their berths and went to bed, one to revel in his easy conquest, the other to lie there and search vainly for a solution of the fastgathering difficulties.

During the night, when the boat stopped at Newburgh, the perturbed young man, seeing no other way out of his difficulties, quietly dressed and went ashore, while he who was supposed to have him under arrest calmly slept on until the boat reached Rondout in the morning. I wonder which felt the more sheepish that morning-the outwitted captor, or the uneasy fugitive. The latter hung around Washington's Headquarters all that day, thinking it an unlikely place for the constable to seek him, and at night took the boat back to New York, whence he hastened to New Jersey to explain matters to his anxious wife.

The Doctor pursued him no further, even though he subsequently returned to his native state to live.

It wasn't a very creditable performance," he confessed years later. " It is the only business transaction in my life that gives me discomfort when I think of it. I have always regretted that I did not pay the Doctor when I got able, though it could not have been till several years after. I paid back Father North, in small amounts, as I could. I was very green then, and, besides, my moral sense was not as acute as it is now."

One of the pleasant events of that winter in East Orange was Bayard Taylor's lecture on Humboldt, at the solicitation of our school-teacher and a friend of his, Horace Fish. To hear the lecture was their main object but incidentally they hoped to make something out of it. Burroughs and Fish hired a hall, and took in tickets at the door. There was a fair audience, but as the admission fee was only ten cents, after expenses were paid they had made but seventy-five cents apiece.

The most valuable experience growing out of that sojourn in East Orange was the friendship between Burroughs and a young man, a little his senior, E. M. Allen. It came about in this way: The members of a debatingclub in Newark, of which Allen was a member, challenged those of the East Orange club to a debate. Young Burroughs was one of the East Orange speakers, and, for some reason, surpassed himself that night, speaking with unwonted force and eloquence, so much so as to win the admiration and friendship of the ardent and magnanimous Allen, for the Orangemen defeated the Newarkians gloriously.

This friendship was destined to have a far-reaching influence on the subsequent career of our student-teacher. Allen was of a winsome nature, cheery, witty, versatile and companionable the first real comrade in the life of one in whom comradeship has played so big a part. He was apt in many ways, could write poetry and stories, make clever caricatures, was a born mimic, a racy raconteur, was at home on the lecture platform, and, later, developed a good deal of business ability, though at that time was eking out a precarious living as versifier, lecturer, and whatnot. "Coffee and Cakes" and "The City and City Life" were clever, whimsical lectures with which he invariably won the friendliness of his audiences, though winning little else besides.

That summer on returning to the home-farm to work in haying, Burroughs invited Allen to visit him, and together the friends made their first camping-trip, of which we shall hear later. It was Allen to whom the first verses John Burroughs ever wrote were addressed, and it was Allen who, when they were on a nutting excursion in 1861, carried with him a curious-looking volume of verse from which he read aloud to his companion-the first introduction of John Burroughs to the poems of Walt Whitman.

Having convinced himself that a business career was not for him, the school-teacher now turned earnestly to writing in all his spare hours, sending short pieces to the Saturday Press, using the pen-name, All Souls, and heading his articles with the absurd title, "Fragments from the Table of an Intellectual Epicure." He now says the title sets his teeth on edge. He only asked a dollar apiece for those wares, but the editor could not afford to pay even that, though gladly using the contributions. Philosophical in trend, they show him beginning to go to Nature for illustrations, as well as tracing the likeness of facts in the everyday life about him to intellectual and moral truths. They also show him observing accurately and thinking independently, and with a tone surprisingly sure for a youth of twenty-three.

Other youths, I think, will like to read a fragment from one of those early essays, "A Thought on Culture" -- the first published one to bear the signature of J. Burroughs:

    The end of knowledge is not that a man may appear learned, any more than the end of eating is that a man may seem to have a full stomach; but the end of it is that a man may be wise, see and understand things as they are; be able to adjust himself to the universe in which he is placed, and judge and reason with the celerity of instinct, and that without any conscious exercise of his knowledge. When we feel the food we have eaten, something is wrong; so when a man is forever conscious of his learning, he has not digested it, and it is an encumbrance.

As the spring term drew to its close, the would-be writer's ambitious young wife returned to the charge of a business career for her husband. Vaguely recognizing his mental power, she could not see why he would not apply it to something that "would count." Other men with far less ability made money, had handsome houses, lived in fine style, had a prosperous business-why couldn't he? What were his brains for, if he got nowhere with them?

Accordingly, arranging for her to go to his father's home in the Catskills, where he fervently longed to go, he stayed on near New York, looking into first one thing, then another, as a business opening. Perhaps he could get into something, and, after a while, still find time to write. He would try again.

Answering advertisements, he sometimes found two hundred applicants ahead of him, many of them skilled in the particular work they sought, while he had only inexperience to offer. He worked for some time as a draughtsman in a carriage factory, spending two days and nights on some drawings, only to find that they did not suit. Hungering and thirsting for the country, he still hung on, looking for an opening, leaving no stone unturned -- a sorry time of discouragement and gloom. Glimmerings, of hope, like fireflies in the dark, led him on many a long, fruitless chase. At last, acknowledging defeat, and abandoning the quest, he fled to the mountains.

The clouds overhanging the nation were lowering ominously now. Jeff Davis had introduced into the Senate resolutions containing demands which the North would not stand: the Fugitive Slave Law, long evaded by the North, must be respected, likewise the Dred Scott Decision. Lincoln's memorable speech in New York at Cooper Union had shortly followed, with its ringing declaration that right alone makes might-the speech which ultimately led to his candidacy and election as president.

A rift in the cloud of our hero's fortunes came about this time: An essay of his was printed in the Saturday Press as a leading article; the New York Independent published a poem ("Loss and Gain"); Allen was writing him most encouragingly concerning the things he was sending on to him now and then for appreciation and criticism, and offering to try to find a market for them.

The perturbed young man had at last reached the point in his career when he realized he must listen no longer to others, but to the inner voice. There was a particular work for him, and that he must do. Already he felt the power, and was beginning to feel a surety as to what the work was. He was willing to serve long and faithfully to attain his ends. This decision was the first real stroke in the long battle.

That summer on the old home farm he worked at whatever offered, planting corn and potatoes, working in the haying, reading Combe's Constitution of Man, and Schlegel's Philosophy of History, practicing at writing, trouting, helping at barn-raisings, and, for a brief time, camping with Allen on the Beaverkill.

Others looking on at the serious-minded youth whose worldly prospects were so dubious, thought he was getting nowhere, but he knew, though vaguely, that he was working toward the definite, though distant, goal. At odd times that summer, rainy days when there was a good excuse for stopping work on the farm, he shut himself away in the south bedroom, and nibbled at his pen, writing some, and musing a good deal. Finally there resulted an essay which he named " Expression" (though most any other title would have suited it as well). It was a philosophical affair. In trepidation he sent this to the Atlantic Monthly, and returned to his potato-digging and other tasks.

James Russell Lowell, the editor of the Atlantic, read the essay. It sounded suspiciously like things he had read over a far more illustrious signature. Who is this John Burroughs? Has he been pilfering from our Concord Sage? Surely those sentences are turned as only Emerson turns them. The puzzled editor searched through all the published writings of Emerson, but find ing no trace of "Expression" there, accepted it, congratulating himself on having discovered a new and forceful writer.

Imagine the feelings of John Burroughs when that letter of acceptance of Lowell's reached him! His faith in himself was at last justified! It stimulated him to further and better efforts. But how could he wait for the appearance of that essay until the November number? Yet wait he must, and meanwhile-to work! -- other things were seething within him, clamouring for expression.

Henceforth, articles and verses slowly gained acceptance, though they brought little or no money. So, even with the cheering recognition from the Atlantic editor, the future was not exactly rosy. No one but his friend Allen cared a four-pence that a paltry essay of his had been accepted. He was failing in what those nearest him counted success. His writing was looked upon as a kind of lazy self-indulgence, and he was continually blamed for not having succeeded in getting into business and "being somebody."

Having definitely put the business proposition behind him, however, and being sorely in need of funds, he was forced into teaching again. This time it was at Marlboro-on-the-Hudson, but reading and writing were henceforth absorbing more and more time and thought. One wonders how his pupils fared, yet he seems to have given satisfaction, for he taught there from the fall of 1860 till the end of the spring term in 1862, his wife teaching with him a part of the time, taking charge of the smaller pupils. In the raspberry season they supplemented their earnings by picking berries at a cent a cup. Young Allen, hard up also, came and picked berries with them; they were the large luscious Belgium berries, called Antwerps, which no one sees any more. By great diligence, in vacation, they could each make between a dollar and a dollar and a half a day at picking berries, and every dollar, nay, every cent, counted in those troublous times.

Fort Sumter had been fired on more than three months before. The North had instantly rallied to Lincoln's call for troops, and with the cry " On to Richmond!" was eager to show the South how quickly the rebellion could be quelled. But the North, though optimistic, was unprepared. One hot July day, while picking Antwerps, the young couple were filled with dismay when a neighbour passing by announced the news of the defeat at Bull Run. They probably went on picking Antwerps, but with anxious fears and premonitions of what this disaster would mean.

Those were the days when the Atlantic Monthly was the teacher-student's university. He was always so eager for it that he used to dispatch one of the boys to the Post Office in school hours, and when he went himself, he could not keep from running on nearing the Office.

To go back a little, to the fall of 1860: After the proof of "Expression" had been sent to its author for correction, and returned, he knew the article would shortly appear. When it was time for the November Atlantic, unable to wait for his copy to come in the mail, he had rowed across the river to Poughkeepsie and tried in vain in two book stores for a copy. One bookseller had had a few copies but had sold them: "Did you look at the table of contents?" excitedly inquired the disappointed customer, then, suddenly realizing that the man had no interest in his essay, he mumbled something and hurried out of the shop. There was nothing to do but row back home and wait for the magazine to come in the usual way.

The eagerness with which he opened the November number and saw his essay in that much-prized magazinewell, you must imagine it! And the check for thirty dollars which came in payment for the same! Never since earning his first twelve silver quarters by peddling maplesugar had money looked so good to him! The sum seemed positively munificent,, and not to him alone -- when he went to the school trustee, requesting him to cash the check, the man looked so mystified at his having all that money that the young essayist felt bound to explain how he came by it. The explanation seemed rather to add to, than to clarify, the mystery. " I suppose he was more mystified still that. anyone would pay me so much for something I had written."

In the summer of 1861 there was the usual work in the hayfield on the Catskill farm, with the reading of Carlyle's French Revolution, and of the Count of Monte Christo for relaxation, and of course the inevitable "scribbling," as his writing was slightingly called. And there was the return to Marlboro in the fall for teaching. In those days, although he roamed the hills and woods, he had no special interest in the birds, except in game birds, which he shot without compunction, even killing the pretty little tip-ups that ran along the shore, taking them home for pot-pies! Mrs. Burroughs made delicious pot-pies. "Expression" had no sooner begun to be read than reports came to its author that it was being pretty generally attributed to Emerson. The Atlantic did not publish the names of its contributors in those days, and the various reviewers assumed (as Lowell had at first suspected) that " Expression " was from the Den of Emerson. Poole's Index and Hill's Rhetoric credited it to Emerson. Young Allen, then in Washington (1862), wrote of an amusing experience of his concerning the supposed authorship of the essay:

    I was calling one evening on a young lady and met a gentleman at her house who seemed to be pretty well read. Among other things we discussed the Atlantic. I asked him if he had read an article in that magazine called "Expression." He said he had, and quoted portions of it.

    "Do you know who wrote it?" I asked.

    "Emerson," he said, with an air of one who knows what's what.

    "Are you sure?"

    "O, yes," he replied with emphasis.

    Then I came down on him "like a wolf on the fold," and took him somewhat aback by telling him that he was mistaken. He seemed inclined to combat. I couldn't mean the essay he meant; he quoted more of it; said he read it at the time it came out, and always thought Emerson wrote it. So you see, my dear John, the Sage of Concord is reaping your laurels. Shame on the Sage!

Pleased at first at these reports, the young writer soon realized that it was a grave error to go tricked out in the manner of another, even of a great writer, and that he must be himself at all costs. If his style reeked with Emerson he would, as it were, bury his literary garments in the earth and let it extract the Emersonian musk. So putting aside his philosophical themes, he began writing about country things-haying, sugarmaking, buttermaking, stone walls-things familiar to him from birth. These articles, with the general heading "From the Back Country," were published in the Saturday Press.

Almost at once he saw that this was his particular field; that here he could write from close and loving intimacy; that he had but to unpack the memories of that farm-boy he had been, and his page at once held freshness, vigour, charm.

When as a boy he had had to drive the cows to pasture in summer, clean the stables in winter, feed the calves in the spring, milk, and sometimes even tread the dog-churn; when he had had to burn stumps, pick up stone, tend sheep, and do countless other chores on that dairy farm, little did he dream that those. very things would help him to write his books, and here they were proving to be what was helping most! All through boyhood and youth he had stored away treasures without realizing it; and, after having tried to do many other and harder things, here, in these long-loved but commonplace objects and experiences, were the tools and the material for his chosen work! For years he had been all around Robin Hood's Barn to find it, and here it lay close at hand! -- work unmistakably his! From that day he was happy. In writing of these familiar things he could speak his own thought, not merely say over again the thoughts of another, acquired from reading. And, strange as it might at first seem, in taking and adhering to this decision, he was more truly the disciple of Emerson, his revered master, than when he had written so in the manner of Emerson.


  1.  "To E. M. A."-published in 1860 in the Saturday Press, of Now York. - (Return)


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