An American Naturalist
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 John Burroughs (1837-1921) might have wished for more poetry in this biography by free-lance writer Renehan (The American Scholar, The Conservationist, etc.), but he couldn't have asked for a more inclusive or caring portrait. Renehan apparently worried the bones of Burroughs's voluminous journals, diaries, and correspondence for 12 years, and his thoroughness is quickly evident here. All stones are turned, starting with the strange family life the budding naturalist weathered as a youth (one episode finds his fanatically religious father filling the boy's Christmas stocking with frozen horse manure: Christmas was for penance, not frivolity), on through his various tenures as schoolteacher, gravedigger, bank auditor, grape grower, celery farmer, reformer, and lecturer; his sorry marriage to Ursula and his liaison with Clara Barrus; and his infatuations with Emerson and Whitman, and with men of wealth and power--Ford, Roosevelt, Carnegie, Edison. Threaded throughout is Burroughs's search, amidst penury and scant encouragement, for the writing style that would become his signature. Renehan's affection for Burroughs is manifest from the start, and there are moments when this sympathy drifts into idolatry. But the author doesn't gloss over Burroughs's nastier qualities--his belief in social Darwinism, his willingness to be used by notorious grandees, and his philanderings all come in for full scrutiny. More problematical is Renehan's artless recording of event after event for long stretches of the naturalist's life: Here, the prose takes on a woodenness that Burroughs wouldn't have enjoyed (``[Burroughs] would be reactive rather than proactive. He would let his future find him rather than he it''). But these low points are partially balanced by passages of real power, particularly those detailing Burroughs's final years. Renehan gives the old Burroughs-as-lovable-bewhiskered- funkster chestnut a decent burial, and, commendably, allows the man to emerge from the fog of his reputation--broad of stature but riddled naturally enough with foibles. (Photographs--not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1992
ISBN: 0-930031-59-8
Page count: 320pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1992


NonfictionGRINNELL by John Taliaferro
by John Taliaferro