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