“Can we explain the appearance of life upon this planet in terms of science, or only, as in the past, in terms of theology?”

A John Burroughs Manuscript

Burroughs late in life, looking very Whitman-like.

John Burroughs (1837-1921), the naturalist, environmental writer, and first biographer of Walt Whitman, continues to play an important role in American writing on nature. Over the course of his long life, he wrote intimately and expansively about the natural world, publishing in numerous American periodicals and collecting his essays into several volumes, gaining him a wide readership. He knew and traveled with Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John Muir, among others, in the early 20th century.

This newly-acquired manuscript essay of Burroughs’s, “The New Materialism,” is signed and dated by him on October 1913. The essay is in pencil and 18 pages long, and has been bound up as a pamphlet with a fairly-early 20th century  typed transcription of the text interleaved inside.

Burroughs, his companion Clara Barrus, and John Muir (bringing up the rear) in the Grand Canyon, ca. 1909.

As the above quote of the essay’s first sentence attests, this essay is a meditation on the boundaries and limits of theology and natural history, or science. One may have suspected it to have come from his 1915 collection of science and nature essays The Breath of Life, but the text does not match, so perhaps this is an essay from the same time period that was not included in the collection. To date, we have not found a printed source where it appeared.

Burroughs at Muir Glacier, Alaska

This manuscript was purchased from the Irvin endowment, which supports our Darwin and Darwiniana collections, and fits nicely into both the Irvin collection and as a bridge to our 19th century American literature collections, which are especially strong in Whitman and Emerson’s works, and very good in Thoreau and other examples of 19th century American writing on the natural world.

The Ormiston Roy Papers, which are currently being processed, also contain some John Burroughs materials, including letters and manuscripts, and from which these photos of Burroughs are taken. In the future, we will mount a larger John Burroughs exhibition to share his life and works with a larger audience.


About Jeffrey Makala

The Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections is located in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina. The department preserves and makes accessible rare materials and special research collections supporting teaching and research across a wide range of disciplines.
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