John Burroughs cuts an impressive figure in the history of American letters, even though his name is one that most people do not recognize. In his long life of nearly eighty-four years, Burroughs managed to span two centuries and to witness dramatic upheavals in the American landscape: a civil war, an industrial and demographic revolution, a world war. Amid that upheaval, however, Burroughs steadfastly maintained the primacy of the natural world within which all of this dark human activity occurred, and it was of that natural world that Burroughs so eloquently wrote. In this biography, Renehan examines the vibrant and often struggling voice that was Burroughs’, offering a wonderful portrait not only of the man but also of the fascinating world through which he moved.
One of the most impressive elements of this biography is the way in which Renehan studies the persistent tension between Burroughs and the powerful men who sought to befriend him. From his childhood friendship with Jay Gould (a friendship that lasted into his later life), through his adult relations with the likes of Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, and Andrew Carnegie, Burroughs over and over again found himself in the company of men who would subordinate the world of nature to the world of capital. This perverse attraction was surely one of the great, problematic paradoxes of Burroughs’ life.
At the same time, Burroughs himself came under the influence of men like Ralph Waldo...
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