Chemistry is incorruptible and immortal, it is the handmaid of God; the yeast works in the elements of our bread of life while we sleep; the stars send their influences, the earth renews itself, the brooding heavens gathers us under its wings, and all is well with us if we have the heroic hearts to see it," wrote John Burroughs in "Shall We Accept the Universe?" That essay appears in a new book, Manifold Nature: John Burroughs and the North American Review, which has its official debut on October 1 at Slabsides, the roughhewn cabin Burroughs built in West Park.
Burroughs grew up on a dairy farm in Delaware County outside Roxbury, the seventh of 10 children. At the age of 17, Burroughs became a teacher in Olive, then alternated teaching and attending schools, such as Cooperstown Seminary. While living in Washington, DC, in 1863, Burroughs met and befriended Walt Whitman, who was ministering to injured soldiers in Army hospitals. Whitman profoundly inspired Burroughs, whose first book, Notes on Walt Whitman As Poet and Person (1867), was a defense of the still-controversial bard. Whitman encouraged his friend to write about nature, and Burroughs' first wildlife essay, "With the Birds," published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1865, was an immediate hit. Burroughs returned to the Hudson Valley in 1873, buying a farm in West Park.
Eventually Burroughs would publish 23 books, which sold a total of 1.5 million copies. He became a household name, respected for his wisdom and simplicity, like a combination of Carl Sagan and the Dalai Lama. Burroughs was sought out by other notables such as Teddy Roosevelt, whom he inspired as a conservationist. Burroughs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and rubber magnate Harvey Firestone went on rustic vacations together, calling themselves the "Four Vagabonds."
Burroughs and his son constructed Slabsides from bark-covered logs in 1895. (The first cutting from a log is called a "slab.") During Burroughs' lifetime, many of his admirers made the pilgrimage to his simple dwelling: nearly 7,000 fans signed his guest books. After Burroughs' death, Henry Ford bought the property, then passed it on to the John Burroughs Association, which still manages it. Slabsides became a National Historic Landmark in 1968.
The North American Review is the oldest literary magazine in the United States, founded in 1815 in Boston—before there was a recognizable American literature. "If you see the American Revolution as being the political Declaration of Independence, then you can say the North American Review is the cultural Declaration of Independence," observes Jeremy Schraffenberger, editor of the journal. The NAR has published an astonishing array of famous writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Emile Zola, Henry James, Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats—plus 12 American presidents! Since 1968, the review has been published at the University of Northern Iowa. Last year, to celebrate their bicentennial, the magazine produced The Great Sympathetic: Walt Whitman and the North American Review, a collection of writings by and about Whitman, all originally from its pages. Manifold Nature collects the 19 essays Burroughs wrote for the magazine, along with reviews and letters to the editor about him. "The book's called Manifold Nature because we wanted to show the manifold nature of Burroughs himself. He's more than just a nature writer; he's also a deep thinker," Schraffenberger explained.
"John Burroughs and the North American Review," a panel discussion, will take place at Vassar College on September 29 at 6:30pm, moderated by Schraffenberger. Jeremy Schraffenberger will speak at Slabsides in West Park October 1, noon, at the book launch of Manifold Nature.