Environmental Science John Burroughs
James Warren
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0031


John Burroughs (b. 1837–d. 1921) was perhaps the best-known and most widely read American nature writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but he is largely unknown and unread today. Prolific and consistent, Burroughs published scores of essays in influential large-circulation magazines between the Civil War and World War I. Such journals as Appleton’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Century, Galaxy, and Scribner’s Monthly made his reputation as important as that of Henry David Thoreau, to whom he was often compared. Unlike Thoreau, however, whose reputation grew posthumously, Burroughs earned a reputation by publishing more than thirty books during his long career. As a celebrity author of essays on natural history, especially on popular ornithology, he lived to see his essays taught widely in secondary schools in the early 20th century. Burroughs gave voice to the art of simple living and to the beauty and power of nature found near at hand. Truly an interdisciplinary writer, Burroughs’s essays present readers with direct, concrete descriptions of nature; bluff, unsentimental evaluations of literature, especially the literature of natural history; and abstract meditations on time, the cosmos, and religion in a secular, modernizing world. Burroughs saw himself as a literary naturalist, straddling the line between nature and culture, and in his best essays he grappled successfully with the competing claims of science, religion, literature, and philosophy. Like modern writers, Burroughs faced what he called “the cosmic chill” of an indifferent universe, but he insisted that we could face the indifference and “still find life sweet under its influence” (The Light of Day). In that regard, Burroughs can be seen as an exemplary figure of the scientific imagination, in a line that would include Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin.

General Overviews

The growth of the environmental movement since the 1970s has resulted in significant works by a host of environmental writers, especially in the genre of creative nonfiction. With roots extending even deeper than the works of Henry David Thoreau, American environmental writing has been, from the very outset, an important part of the larger canon of American literature. Buell 1995 is the seminal work in establishing the field of American environmental writing, ranging from Thoreau to the present. Love 2003, on the other hand, is a concerted argument for the interdisciplinary connection between science and literature, focusing especially on the relevance of biological sciences for the growing literary field of ecocriticism. Literary historians have been especially keen to describe the rise of the nature essay as a form in American culture after the Civil War. Glazener 1997 places the work of Thoreau, Burroughs, and John Muir in the context of the realist authors publishing regularly in the Atlantic, the premier literary magazine of the postbellum period. The clear development of an industrializing, urbanizing empire sweeping from coast to coast is the background for literary essays promoting the tonic of nature and the simple pleasures of walking and observing the natural world. Schmitt 1969 is an early, still-relevant historical account of this “back-to-nature” movement, while Slotkin 1985 provides the panoramic history of the industrializing West. John Burroughs’s essays, with their hybrid forms and accessible style, fit within the large-scale movement of American environmental writing from mid-19th century to the present. As a celebrity author of nature essays, moreover, Burroughs can be seen as the equal of his contemporaries John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Theodore Roosevelt.

  • Buell, Lawrence. 1995. The environmental imagination: Thoreau, nature writing, and the formation of American culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A magisterial study of nature writing within the American literary tradition, from mid-19th century to the present. Burroughs is granted a limited role.

  • Glazener, Nancy. 1997. Reading for realism: The history of a U.S. literary institution, 1850–1910. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    The focus is the realist novel and the publishing power of the “Atlantic group,” which included Burroughs and other nature writers.

  • Love, Glen. 2003. Practical ecocriticism: Literature, biology, and the environment. Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press.

    Argues for the practical relevance of evolutionary biology and ecology in literary criticism of environmental writings. Promotes interdisciplinary work between sciences and humanities.

  • Schmitt, Peter J. 1969. Back to nature: The Arcadian myth in urban nature. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A fine, detailed history of the “back-to-nature” movement in the United States after the Civil War. Burroughs occupies a central role.

  • Slotkin, Richard. 1985. The fatal environment: The myth of the frontier in the age of industrialization, 1800–1900. New York: Atheneum.

    Second volume in a trilogy treating the myth of the frontier in American culture, from the 17th century to the 20th century. This volume is of particular interest for its account of industrialization and imperial expansion in the West.

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