From 1870 through 1920, the great visionary and naturalist Jon Burroughs penned more than two dozen books of nature essays with the goal of encouraging a love of the wilderness. He also wrote the first biography of Walt Whitman ever published. Notes on Walt Whitman As Poet and Person, appeared in 1867 and was a spirited defense of Walt’s poetry at a time when it was widely condemned.
John considered Walt as both a mentor and a dear friend — and the two gifted and far-seeing writers provided much-needed support and encouragement to each other. Walt was a guest of the Burroughs’ family in the 1870s at its home in West Park, New York. The family’s kitchen table was even dubbed the “Whitman table,” because he wrote portions of Specimen Days on it during one visit.
In late September of 1883, John and Walt vacationed together in Ocean City, New Jersey. John spent much of his time exploring the beach while Whitman scrawled out a new poem called, “With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea!” Amazing title, isn’t it?
Here’s how John described Walt:
“The great bard on my right hand, and the sea upon my left — the thoughts of one equally grand with the suggestions and elemental heave of the other…. There is something grainy and saline in him, as in the voice of the sea. Sometimes his talk is choppy and confused, or elliptical and unfinished; again there comes a long splendid roll of thought that bathes one from head to foot, or swings you quite from your moorings.”
Here’s how Walt described John:
“…up and down long stretches of this beach every day, his pants rolled up to below his knees, his right hand saluting to shade his eyes as he scans the scene up and down. He comes back to me, sits down and talks for a half an hour of the margin of shore where the tongue of surf slips back and forth, opening his hand to show the life he’s found an inch below the damp sand.” Later, Walt watched as John met and befriended “three very little girls with buckets.” He spent nearly an hour exploring with them, using a bucket to dig a deep hole from which he pulled “shells and strange creatures that he held out for the young ladies’ astonished persual [sic] and, providing, it seemed a running narration through the whole exercise.”
I love the way these two wonderful writers observed and captured each other, don’t you? Write on!