In Whitman: A Study, the Catskills nature-writer, essayist, and philosopher John Burroughs (1837-1921) defended Walt Whitman (1819-1892) against the hostile reactions of contemporary scholars, for whom Whitman’s poetry was too coarse, racy, and controversial. In the book, Burroughs presented Walt Whitman as the “poet of democracy” and described him as a primal man, visionary of the open air, barbarian in the parlor, force of nature, and prophet. But Whitman: A Study isn’t just about Whitman, it’s also an exposition of Burroughs’ philosophy. Inspired by both science and nature, Burroughs saw natural processes at work within society, and he explained how both physical strength and the vitality of culture can fade if we lose our connection with the natural world. This message seems just as relevant for our information age as it was 120 years ago when Whitman: A Study was first published.
The jumping-off point for Burroughs’ thinking was Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Burroughs quotes Walt Whitman on the intuition behind evolutionary selection pressure: “There can be no light without dark, no life without death, no growth without pain and struggle.” Writing at the dawn of the 20th century, Burroughs recognized that not everyone had fully grasped evolutionary theory, so he explained how struggle produced strong people, and then he contrasted primitive strength with the weakness he saw among contemporaries:
In more primitive communities, the sap and vitality of the race were kept in the best men, because upon them the strain and struggle were greatest. War, adventure, discovery, favor virility. Whitman is always and everywhere occupied with that which makes for life, power, longevity, manliness. The scholar poets are occupied with that which makes for culture, taste, refinement, ease, art.
Today we might use different words than “virility” and “manliness,” but we’d still agree that physical strength is produced by “strain and struggle.” And we’d concede Burroughs’ warning, “where struggle ceases, the race or family is doomed,” although perhaps in less dramatic terms. But what’s interesting is that he applied the thesis of growth-through-struggle not only to physical life, but also to the realm of art when he criticized the “scholar poets” — those contemporary authors and critics who dismissed Whitman — for being preoccupied with the pursuit of “refinement” and “ease.”
Himself a scholar, critic, and author, Burroughs appreciated “culture and art,” but he didn’t care for literature that was excessively “refined” because it seemed weak and decadent to him. Conformist thinking shelters us from reality, he argued:
We are housed in social usages and laws, we are sheltered and warmed and comforted by conventions and institutions and numberless traditions.
This statement draws a parallel between housing and society: the house shelters us from the elements, but in so doing allows our physical strength to atrophy because our bodies no longer struggle to overcome heat and cold. A similar weakening effect is produced by social usages, laws, conventions, and institutions which make it easy to follow other people’s attitudes without having to think for ourselves. The result is a troubling conformity — a “pampered,” “timid,” and “emasculating”attitude — which Burroughs saw throughout American culture:
The fear of being unconventional is greater with us than the fear of death. A certain evasiveness, polish, distrust of ourselves, amounting to insipidity and insincerity, is spoken of by observant foreigners.
Burroughs’ critique has a Transcendentalist ring to it. He sounds like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote,”we can never have enough of nature” and who believed that experiencing “wildness” was a chance to “witness our own limits transgressed.” Both men would have agreed the rough stimuli of nature force us to struggle and grow, whereas in a sheltered environment, limits are never challenged and thus become permanent. Burroughs was also echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father of American Transcendentalism, who railed against conformity, writing that “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”
However, some amount of conformity is necessary for society to function, otherwise people would have a hard time working together. Burroughs was no anarchist: he formed relationships with many people, ranging from school children to the famous and powerful like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ford. His argument was not that all conformity is bad, only that it may become counterproductive, for example, when conventional thinking prevents people from recognizing a genius like Walt Whitman.
Where does conventional thinking go wrong? In Whitman: A Study, collective thought is presented as forming a kind of artificial reality, a metaphor that seems remarkably prescient in light of today’s digital environment:
The accumulations of our civilization are enormous: an artificial world of great depth and potency overlies the world of reality; especially does it overlie the world of man’s moral and intellectual nature. Most of us live and thrive in this artificial world, and never know but it is the world of God’s own creating. Only now and then a man strikes his roots down through this made land into fresh, virgin soil.
That civilization’s “moral and intellectual” values represent an “artificial world” is the same idea behind the popular movie franchise The Matrix, in which the protagonist awakens from collective illusion and goes to war against the forces of authority. Rather than advocating rebellion, Burroughs looked for the rare individual who could “strike his roots down” through the artificial world into “fresh, virgin soil,” reestablishing a direct connection with, and drawing strength and inspiration from the primal energy of nature. This was what he saw in Walt Whitman, whom he described as the “elemental” and “aboriginal” man, “rugged,” and “unrefined.” The scholar-poets, in contrast, were like “potted plants”: cultured, ornamental, weak, dependent, without deep roots.
The artificial world shelters us from the rough stimuli of nature, but in so doing it limits struggle and thus sets the stage for decline. Burroughs saw symptoms of decay in the “literary disease” observable in people who “love less things themselves than the literary effects which they produce.” 19th-century poets infected with this disease tried to replace the coarseness and raciness of nature with artificial excitement:
Everything is bedecked and bejeweled. Nothing is truly seen or truly reported. It is an attempt to paint the world beautiful. It is not beautiful as it is, and we must deck it out in the colors of the fancy.
Burroughs identified several authors whom he felt had fallen victim to the literary disease, including Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1982), the poet laureate of Great Britain, whose carefully-crafted verses were popular with the American scholar-poets who couldn’t stomach Whitman.
There lies a vale in Ida, lovelier
Than all the valleys of Ionian hills.
The swimming vapour slopes athwart the glen,
Puts forth an arm, and creeps from pine to pine
And loiters, slowly drawn. On either hand
The lawns and meadow-ledges midway down
Hang rich in flowers, and far below them roars
The long brook falling thro’ the clov’n ravine
In cataract after cataract to the sea.
— Alfred Tennyson, Oenone
Burroughs respected Tennyson but was “impatient of formalities, ceremonies, and make-believe.” Burroughs craved “the essential, the real.” He wanted “to see the thing as in itself it is,” not the scholar-poet’s “ideas about the thing.” He was searching for a direct connection to the “raciness and healthful coarseness of nature,” both in literature and in his rambles through the forests of New York’s Catskill Mountains.
And so was Whitman. Part of his genius, according to Burroughs, was that he took nature as a model. Burroughs quotes Whitman at length on this point:
The usual way is for the poet or writer to put in as much taste, perfume, piquancy, as he can; but this is not the way of nature, which I take for model. Nature presents us her productions—her air, earth, waters, even her flowers, grains, meats—with faint and delicate flavor and fragrance, but these in the long run make the deepest impression. Man, dealing with natural things, constantly aims to increase their piquancy. By crossing and selection he deepens and intensifies the scents and hues of flowers, the tastes of fruits, and so on. He pursues the same method in poetry,—that is, strives for strong light or shade, for high color, perfume, pungency, in all ways for the greatest immediate effect. In so doing he leaves the true way, the way of Nature, and, in the long run, comes far short of producing her effects.
— Walt Whitman
In the conventions of 19th-century literature, Burroughs and Whitman saw excessive refinement, artificial color and perfume, exaggerated piquancy, and hence weakness and decay. Rather than sheltering among outdated ideas, they embraced the scientific theories of Darwin and the burgeoning spirit of democracy. Unlike the Transcendentalists, Burroughs and Whitman weren’t turning to nature to escape social conventions, rather their objective was to connect with nature and infuse its roughness, coarseness, and savageness into life and literature. Burroughs summarizes:
Though our progress and civilization are a triumph over nature, yet in an important sense we never get away from nature or improve upon her. Her standards are still our standards, her sweetness and excellence are still our aim. Her health, her fertility, her wholeness, her freshness, her innocence, her evolution, we would fain copy or reproduce. We would, if we could, keep the pungency and aroma of her wild fruit in our cultivated specimens, the virtue and hardiness of the savage in our fine gentlemen, the joy and spontaneity of her bird-songs in our poetry, the grace and beauty of her forms in our sculpture and carvings.
In the early 21st century, Burroughs’ message is still relevant although our issues are different from those of the 19th and early 20th century. American culture is no longer excessively refined, rather we have plenty of coarseness and raciness judging from the popularity of reality TV shows, heavy metal rock, pornography, monster truck races, and mixed martial arts fighting.
But that doesn’t mean the “artificial world” of collective thinking can no longer become disconnected from the real world. Some would point to the rigid social attitudes of people on the Religious Right as an example of conformist thinking that doesn’t reflect our true natures. Others might criticize the spread of political correctness, especially among college students at elite liberal universities who seek shelter from controversial topics by limiting free speech.
As a runner, I’ve noticed that people have come to believe that they can’t run long distances without continuously drinking, eating, and taking electrolytes and without wearing cushioned shoes. These examples of conventional thinking mask a loss of aboriginal hardiness and while the consequences are not dire (except for hypnoatremia, which can result in death from over-drinking), they are part of the broader loss of physical fitness that’s resulted from the sedentary nature of modern life. Other examples of collective thinking gone awry include dietary guidelines encouraging reduced fat intake, which may have caused people to become fat by consuming excessive carbohydrates, or possibly too much use of sunscreen out of a fear of skin cancer, which may have contributed to health problems by depriving people of vitamin D from sunshine.
I’m not worried that the human race as a whole will lose its connection to nature, but I would expect to see stronger individuals moving ahead and leaving behind those who’ve weakened. For individuals, then, it’s fair question to ask, have we become too sheltered in certain aspects of how we live or think?
Do our roots still penetrate to virgin soil?
In today’s world, with the accelerating pace of technological change, the artificial world is getting broader and deeper by the second. You can’t escape the artificial world, and you probably can’t rebel against it. To summarize Burroughs’ message, if you want to stay strong and keep growing, then make sure you don’t lose your connectivity with nature!