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All seems reflex and echo-tout de reflet et de reverbere. Mr. Burroughs embarked joyously under the transcendental banner of Carlyle and Emerson; he sailed valiantly across the mid-day meridian with the militant intellectualism of Huxley fluttering defiantly from the mast; and finally, after a long, arduous, stormtossed voyage around the world of thought he put into port at eventide with Bergson beside him at the wheel.
One can hardly help seeing the futility of Mr. Burroughs' philosophic effort. Industriously he went in quest of truth. Long and far he followed the leading of his various guides,-only to find himself, time after time, in what seemed a blind alley, with his head against a stone wall. But still he despaired not. He believed that whoever finds truth finds God, and whoever loves truth loves God.
And yet, Mr. Burroughs ended in a strange paradox. Intellectually, he was saying: "We need encouragement in our attitude of heroic courage and faith toward an impersonal Universe." Emotionally, he was saying: "Obey the commandments, the Golden Rule, imbue your spirit with the wisdom of all ages, for thus is the moral order of the world upheld."
Intellectually, he believed in a monistic Universe,—a mechanistic evolution, if you will. He denied any sort of dualism in creation: "Can there be anything in the Universe that is not of the Universe? Can we make two or three out of one?" The Universe was, to his mind, a great machine controlled utterly by physical and chemical law,-impersonal. His feelings, however, held to a dualistic Universe,-to a Universe in which there was need for the Golden Rule. What he entirely failed to grasp, it seems, was that these two positions were entirely heterogeneous, incompatible, and untenable. If the Universe is impersonal, then we, as a human race, are entirely the product of physical and chemical laws, our minds are mere magnetic mockeries, and the naturalistic human chemistry of a Theodore Deiser becomes law and gospel. Instead of a Golden Rule, we have need for an animal psychology, and a jungle in which to breed our race of spoiled monkey-men. If the Universe is not impersonal, but personal, then it becomes conceiv
able that the Golden Rule may have a legitimate place in human affairs; but hardly otherwise. Public morals have ever been builded on the belief in a dualistic Universe.
Despite this unreasoned dilemma, Mr. Burroughs wrote blandly: "The moral order and the intellectual order go hand in hand. Upon one rests our relation to our fellows, upon the other rests our relation to the cosmos."
During the World War, Mr. Burroughs showed his weakness as a philosopher of an impersonal Universe. When the world was all ablaze with the Allied effort to put down the jungle-mannered race of boasting, naturalistic super-men, who were out to give the Darwinian evolutional human race a tremendous push forward, Mr. Burroughs rallied to the defense of the older dualistic and humanistic influences of civilization.
In Mr. Burroughs's scientific philosophy there is the shallowness of too facile dogmatism. As a naturalist, he knew that the truth of Nature is not always caught by the biggest generalization; as a philosopher, he quite failed to comprehend this fact. "The Universe is good in its sum total up to this astronomic date," is the too common sort of glittering generality that signifies nothing.
The thing that must have been a little disheartening to Mr. Burroughs, as he grew older, was the way in which he was almost universally heralded by his friends as a Christian gentleman. In other words, it must have been very plain to him that the milk of human kindness in his personality was making its way much farther than in his efforts at pure reason and philosophy. The fact is that his actions spoke so loud that no one pretended to hear what he was publishing in his scientific essays.
In a very different way, it is easy to see that Mr. Burroughs was never able rightly to bring his theory and practice into harmony. He reasons that a stern, impersonal evolution is the law of Nature; and yet, he kills the black-snake that is feasting on the fledglings of the cat-bird. The chipmunk, he releases from the cat's claw. The weasel, he helps the dog destroy. The imprisoned swift, he carries tenderly to the open air, and to freedom. It is, after all, the kindly Mr. Burroughs, in practice rather the unfeeling logical
scientific Mr. Burroughs, in theory, that his readers always remember.
His philosophical trend led him into the least profitable of his nature studies, the study of the animal mind. One has the uncomfortable suspicion that, after all, Mr. Burroughs is merely trying to find facts upon which to reassure his philosophical belief. "Man is doubtless of animal origin. The road by which he has come out of the dim past lies through the lower animals." As a scientist, he could not admit anything mystical or transcendental in Nature, but his common sense made him aware, the while, that the final explanation of the least fact was beyond him. Of man's faculties, he conceded the lower animals perception, sense memory, and association of memories, and little else.
As one critic points out, it is the faculty of wonder in Mr. Burroughs that explains much concerning his philosophic career. "I think I was born under happy stars, with a keen sense of wonder," he confides, "which has never left me, and which only becomes jaded a little now and then." In his old age, he confesses: "As life nears its end with me, I find myself meditating more and more upon the mystery of its nature and origin." He is aware that "where there is no vision, no intuitive perception of the great fundamental truths of the inner spiritual world, science will not
In his extreme old age, Mr. Burroughs descended into a second childhood; he returned to his scientific romancing. Uneasy at the bleak aspect of the wall just ahead of him, he found it necessary to conceal from himself the unreasoned paradox of his philosophy. This he accomplished through the lavish use of glittering generalities. He generalized that he was a Pantheist, and that, therefore, God could have no personality. The Universe was under the reign of universal law. He generalized, also, that he was a Philosophical Scientist, and that, therefore, our race could have no ethical system other than the system of evolved biological instincts. With a wave of his wand, he thus ignored the most universal language of man,-the language of Mythology, the language of Chivalry, the language of Christianity, the language of Poetry.
The life of Mr. Burroughs thus has its pathetic aspect. Decade after decade he spared himself no pains to find the external scientific fact. As he grew older his physical senses grew keener and more keen. But unconsciously, the while, the inner light dimmed and gradually went out, and left him cold and weary, and groping blindly in the dark. "The thought of living forever makes me tired," he sighed a few weeks before the end came.
But there is one other sort of thing that should be said in justice to Mr. Burroughs. Few other men of his generation toiled more consistently, or traveled further in quest of truth than did he. The alert activity of his old age should speak volumes; he was still a seacher for the open sesame at the time of his death. In his deliberate growth and in the late season at which he put forth his full leaf, Mr. Burroughs was not unlike the white-oak.
It is pleasanter, after all, not to try seriously to rank a popular author such as Mr. Burroughs. Time attends to this so much more quietly and inoffensively than the sanest critic. No harm, however, can come from a few tentative suggestions.
It was Mr. Burroughs's feelings rather than his reasoning faculties that were in the ascendency. With him, it is the heart that clarifies the vision rather than the head. Had it been otherwise, it is easy to understand that he would never have played at vacationing with Mr. Ford and Mr. Edison. Instead, he would have been frequently entertaining the Young Intellectuals for a weekend at Slabsides.
One can hardly escape the conclusion, too, that it would have been better if Mr. Burroughs had possessed less facility of expression. As he grew older, he became too much a gushing, sparkling fountain. He could run prettily with very much less water than is needed to supply a trout brook-to say nothing of a stately river. He had a way, as he said himself, of copying the method which was used years ago to thrash out grain with the hand flail.. He thrashed the same straw a number of times, until, finally, there was too little straw to pay his effort. Despite this fact, his
style was so perfect, his terseness and epigram so striking, that the periodical world was clamoring constantly to exploit his least cogitation. And his publishers found it profitable to issue volume after volume of his essays.
In philosophy, he was all his life following down trails that had been blazed ahead. Too frequently, he lost the trail before he had come to its ultimate end, became restless, picked up another trail, and so on to the end of his days. His life finally went out in a pathetic little wailing question. It was his Hudson hillside farmstead, however, and not the wide stretching, inhospitable, impersonal cosmos that was last in his thoughts.
But why go further? further? One might better reflect on the criticism so often repeated concerning Scott: If he was not a great writer, he was something very much pleasanter to be, a healthy man. One cannot say anything derogatory of such a kindly author without hurting his many friends.
After one has looked through the fifteen volumes with some patience, one cannot escape the conclusion that Mr. Burroughs would have been wiser to have left behind a single volume, as did Thoreau. Then one takes up the two little volumes of the Riverside Classics, a gleaner's handful of bird and animal stories. Boys and girls-old and young-will be indeed fortunate through the coming generations if they are introduced to the joyous intimacies of this lover of the lawns and the fields and the woods. Truly, the milk of human kindliness has never flowed more sweetly, nor eye of man discovered with greater accuracy the byplay of Nature.