The nature diary of a Walt Whitman enthusiast and "literary light man," 1896-1897

The nature diary of a Walt Whitman enthusiast and "literary light man," 1896-1897

Elliot, Charles Nathan (1873-1951). Sylvan Notes. Manuscript journal, April 19, 1896 to Oct. 10, 1897. 190 p.; ill.; 172 x 102 mm (6 ¾ x 4 in). Original roan binding, lacking the original cloth spine. Extremities worn, hinges split, a few pages loose.

     A journal on natural history and Walt Whitman kept by a young devotee who would publish a book on the poet in 1915 and whose collection of correspondence and manuscripts is now housed at the Library of Congress. The manuscript is not signed, but the internal evidence (family names, for example) is unequivocal. In addition to chronicling his earliest exposure to Whitman's circle, Elliot's journal also illustrates the passions of readers who were so moved by such naturalists as John Burroughs, Mabel Osgood Wright, and Charles Conrad Abbot as to embark upon their own explorations.

     Born in Kentucky, Elliot encountered Whitman through the work of John Burroughs, whose work certainly inspired this journal, whose lengthy, lyrical, and detailed descriptions are imitative of Burroughs's intoxicating prose (see the selections below). 

     In addition to being America’s foremost naturalist in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, Burroughs was also Whitman’s first champion, publishing an appreciation of the poet in 1867; a revised edition of the book was issued in 1896. Mabel Osgood Wright's Birdcraft, a pioneering field guide that opened the field of popular ornithology, had been published in 1895, and the book was his constant companion as he explored the woods and fields of Milford and Miami, Ohio. Wright quoted often from Burroughs to lend color to her technical descriptions, and Burroughs referred often to Whitman in his writing. The diary charts the young man's progression as he moved from one writer to the next. 

     An eager bibliophile, Elliot wrote to Burroughs asking for an autograph, and sought out works by the poet whom the naturalist praised so extravagantly. Soon Elliot’s passion for Whitman would outstrip his love of Burroughs. As this diary reveals, he began to seek out Whitman’s associates, writing to Richard Maurice Bucke and attending lectures by William N. Guthrie; their generosity provided the seeds for what would be a major collection. In an interview fifty-one years later, Elliot would date his birth as a collector to the year this journal commences.

     These generous mentors also provided Elliot with material for what would be an invaluable book. Elliot preserved the letters he received in the 1890s, and published them with further correspondence received in the 1910s as Walt Whitman as Man, Poet, and Friend (1915) – a collection of personal memories of Whitman, reproduced in the autograph. Many of the letters in Elliot's book are undated but some clearly were collected during the period covered in this journal. A letter from Daniel G. Brinton, for example, is dated October 7, 1897. Several others date from early 1898, just after this diary ends.

     Corresponding with Burroughs and Abbot, and attending lectures by Harriet Mann MIller ("Olive Thorne"), Elliot considered writing a book on birdsong. He delivered a paper on his ornithological observations at the Epworth League, a young adult group in Cincinnati sponsored by the Methodist Church. But by the time he published Walt Whitman as Man, Poet, and Friend, Elliot had abandoned his youthful ambitions and was pursuing an uncommon career in the Coast Guard's Lighthouse Service.


Polk's Astoria City and Clatsop County Directory, 1917-1918

In the 1910s Elliot was stationed at the Desdemona Sands light in Astoria, Oregon. In 1918 he took supervision of the lighthouse in Ketchikan, Alaska. In 1930 he was transferred to Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1935 he accepted his final post at Alki Point, Seattle, Oregon. He retired from the Lighthouse Service in 1942, moving back to Honolulu.


Desdemona Sands lighthouse, Astoria, Oregon, where Elliot compiled Walt Whitman as Man, Poet, and Friend (1915)

Throughout his service Elliot, who gained the reputation of a "one-man reference library," continued his research into Whitman’s life and career. A profile published in 1947 describes Elliot’s collection, which he had lent for an exhibition at the Library of Hawaii.  As Elliot remarked to one reporter in 1939, "watching the light on long foggy nights leaves me plenty of time to study, you know.” He gifted his manuscript collection to the Library of Congress in 1951.


Charles M. Elliot at the Alki Point lighthouse in 1939. United States Lighthouse Society.

     The present diary dates from the period before Elliot’s Coast Guard service, when he was living in a rural town east of Cincinnati, Ohio, with his wife Garnett (whom he married in 1894) and infant daughter Romaine (born in 1895; a small photograph of her is laid in). As the title of the journal suggests, Elliot’s intention was to set down his observations in the mode of Thoreau and Burroughs, and the long entries in this densely-written diary offers much in the way of detailed observations on birds and lyrical descriptions of landscape, embellished with a few small drawings. The diary also reveals the budding interests of a bibliophile as he encountered the work of a poet who would continue to obsess him for the rest of his life.


Cincinnati Enquirer, 15 October 1939, p.42.


Selections from the journal

Saturday, Apr. 19, 1896. The day was ushered in by cheerful sounds, bright sun and fresh sweet odors of spring. We arose Garnett & I about 6:00 o'clocks -- should have been up two hours earlier to get the full benefit of the beautiful morn. Taking our little one, the fairest flower of this spring day, the brightest & sweetest little bird that sings, we sallied forth to take a morning walk....

     Through my glass I obtained the following results.

     Male -- bright gamboge yellow as to head & body (back & belly), very sweet delicate color though bright yet refined & soft showing to great advantage among green leaves and azure of sky for background. Wings black, cross-barred with yellow (more of whitish color than body). Tail black also bill & legs and eyes. He wears on his head a triangular cap of velvet black which showed ever & anon as he reached downward & foreward under his feet for some particularly tempting morsel. This cap reached from center of crown to base od upper mandible where it was widest. ...

     Female same size as male....

     This is the gold finch of America (or wild canary, thistle bill, or yellow bird) ... "Birdcraft" says the bird's dull winter plumage is not moulted for the brilliant tints of summer until late May but this one's was.  Though I waited patiently with upcast face & aching nec to hear & identify his note, both were too busy filling their little throats with the succulent elm buds to ever give vent to its callnote "kee-chee-chee-chee whew-e-whew-e" (Birdcraft)....

     About 8:30 P.M. Garnett & I started out for a walk, I carrying Burroughs "Riverby" intending to read to G....

Sun May 10 -- 10:30 a.m. As I sat this morning at my desk & bookcase reading "Birdcraft" & Burroughs, I heard a great tumult of jays' cries in the front yard... 

May 22/96 5:45 a.m. Romaine & I take a walk together. She is much interested in all nature and gazes with wide eyes at tree and grass and sky. ...

Sat. June 13 '96 …. A little more than a week ago I wrote to John Burroughs and promptly received a most courteous & kind reply. Have sent “Riverby” to him to sign his name in. I feel nearer an author knowing I have his handwriting in his book the product of his mind. He asked that I send him some of the seed of the White Erythronium “farm lily”. Have searched all these woods for it but even the leaves of a plentiful crop have entirely disappeared. Am disappointed. ...

     Received a letter from C[harles] C[onrad] Abbott – a very kind letter.....

     Bo’t a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Goodbye my Fancy” today. He is a quick reaching writer -- probes to the bottom. How brave, noble & strong, determined he is. All paralytic, poor & almost universally despised. The world physical ... against him yet cheerful & fighting to the last,

Sun. June 14, '96. After church this a.m. I walked to John Herman's to see if I could find an 8" indian spear for C. C Abbott. He had none but showed me his collection....

Sun. July 26, '96. 11:00 a.m. .... Have just read Abbott's Days out of Doors where he is describing raking leaves & hay. My memory flies back to a sweet June evening some four years ago. I came up to a hill & saw just above the steps the most beautiful picture imaginable -- she who is now my wife, rake in hand, clad in a simpe gown of pure white, a wide brimmed low crowned soft mull hat shaded her sweet face ....

July 29, 1896. 9:10 p.m. ...A certain part of the cloud bank assumed the semblance of a human profile and with but slight effort of fancy we could distinguish various well-known faces. ... McKinley's Napoleonic profile ... Grover Cleveland's rotund countenance, his head wearing a turreted crown. ... Ben Franklin, the wizard of the storm .... 

Sunday, Jan'y 31, '97. ... Past week has been the coldest contentious week known for years -- mercury from zero to 14o below all the time reports of poor people frozen to death in many of our large citys -- very little time now to observe & get close to nature....

     "The Voices of the Birds" would be a title for a most interesting book. I shall study to make myself familiar with their notes & possibly write such a book. ... Almost impossible however not to record many things that have already been noted by Gilbert White, Thoreau, Burroughs, C. C. Abbott, or some other of our many authors of outdoor books....

Sunday Feb’y 28, '97 … Am much interested in all pertaining to the grand old man Walt Whitman – especially his personality. Yesterday met Prof [William N.] Guthrie at W. P. James’ book shop on 7th St. Cincinnati. We had a very spirited & interesting conversation - Smith, James, Guthrie & I. Guthrie’s new book of essays will soon be published by Clarke. G. Lectures on Whitman but not for W'manites but to dispel prejudice in the minds of non-admirers of our bard. He says that a true Whitmanite is a student only of his writings and not of writings on Whitman & his works, while I contested that both should be studied.

Sunday. March 14, '97 … A few days ago rec’d a letter from R[ichard] M[aurice] Bucke anent W. Whitman & later a package containing three portraits – two with autographs, a check on the Camden bank for $16.00 signed by W. W. and two magazines & a limited publication by H[orace] L. Traubel “At the Graveside of W.W.” All sent me out of generosity on the part of Dr. Bucke of whom I simply made the request that he write a short autograph note in his book “W. Whitman” which I tomorrow send to him. Truly the Good Grey Poet and his friends all belong to the brotherhood of the generously good.

Apr. 10, '97 … Last night attended a lecture by Olive Thorne Miller at the Unitarian Church subject “Homelife of Birds” . Was the first person in the house and had choice of seats … Lecture or rather reading was charming and most interesting. ... I asked the lecturer afterward if the lady [who nursed an owl back to health] was not M[abel] O[sgood] Wright and she said it was....

Saturday – May 8, '97 – Last night read a paper before Epworth League on “What I have seen birds do” closed by administering a “roast” to the women for weaving birds or their plumage on head gear. ...

July 4th 1897 … As I examined these birds and a gay Towhee – I noticed the glory of the Eastern sky and hurried through tall rank weeds, bushes & grasses to the brow of the hill overlooking Milford & the Miami valley – ever catching glimpses of the Eastern glory as I went onward beneath the beeches boughs – then out at a stile upon a promontory revealing with suddenness the golden flood now streaming over the distant wood capped hills and not so much casting shadows as chastening them -- the shadows being already there and Phoebus's mission to chase them off. ... While the eye is busy noting the magic of the sun … and the nose regaled with fresh dewy odors, the ear is furnished entertainment equaled by no other – the concert of the birds. “There is music in the air / everywhere, everywhere” A Wood thrush sits with negligent drooping wings on a dead branch in the top of yonder storm-blasted oak and leisurely, as he views the beauty of the morn, he utters his notes of liquid gold, pure in sound as the eastern light in color.

Oct. 10th 1897. ... Have just finished a long letter to Dr. [Richard Maurice] Bucke of London, Canada. Garnett & R. are in bed. Will join them now.


  • Anderson, Kraig. “Alki Point Lighthouse.”
  • A.P. "Literary Light Man," Cincinnati Enquirer, 15 October 1939, p.42.
  • Elliot, Charles N. Walt Whitman as Man, Poet, and Friend, Being Autograph Pages from Many Pens. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915.
  • [Feinberg, Charles E.] Walt Whitman: a catalog based upon the collections of the Library of Congress ;with Notes on Whitman collections and collectors. Washington, D.C.,: Reference Dept., Library of Congress, 1955.
  • Library of Congress. Charles N. Elliot Collection.
  • Warren, Grace Tower. “Kamaaina Kolumn,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, 12 July 1947.

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    The nature diary of a Walt Whitman enthusiast and "literary light man," 1896-1897