Between 1865 and 1868, naturalist John Burroughs maintained correspondence with S.W. Adam of Canaan, Connecticut. The collection, now among our manuscripts (Ms 78678), is primarily letters from Burroughs to Adam, with a few written by Adam. While the bulk of their conversation pertains to birds, Burroughs managed to unwittingly stumble into a side conversation.
As the exchange began, all of Burroughs’ letters were’ addressed to S. W. Adam, Esq. He started each letter, “Dear Sir.” A couple of months into the correspondence, Adam wrote, “In conclusion you will allow me to say, that although somewhat of an advocate for ‘woman’s rights’ in my own family, I have not yet attained the position to demand the affix Esq. to my name!” The letter was signed Sarah W. Adam.
“Dear Madam,” Burroughs replied. “Is that right? Really I am very stupid, but how was I to know. I had said to myself my Canaan correspondent was a clergyman. I hardly know from what I drew my influence but such was my impression. But better than that it is a lady.” The remainder of the letter was once again about birds.
Burroughs was closer to getting it right. A couple letters later, he finally did.
Dear Miss Adam, I owe this to my good friend Mr. Benton. He assures me that you really are neither a Mr. nor a Madam but a veritable young lady, which seems quite improbable considering your tastes, as I have never known a lady old or young whom I thought had a deep and permanent love for nature or natural objects.
Burroughs just could not believe a young lady would be interested in topics such as taxidermy.
Adam and Burroughs did not correspond over the winter. Adam, in her next letter, began by mentioning that she did not see many winter birds. A couple pages later, in the midst of discussing Warblers, she wrote, “I saw your friend Mr. Benton, and took him to task for disabusing your mind of the idea that I was a ‘clergyman,’ able to shoot the Birds!” Two pages later, Adam again breaks from the bird discussion.
Here let me call you to account for your slander on my sex in yr. last letter – wherein you speak of knowing no ‘woman young or old who has a deep and permanent love for nature.’ Truly, you must have spent all your days in Washington or some more terrible place, if any such can be named. I will pardon you on the first sign of penitence.
From there Adam segued into an experience with frogs.
Penitence was offered in Burroughs’ reply.
I did not mean to say that a lady could not have a deep & permanent love of nature; I only meant to say that I had never known any such. Every lady professes the greatest love of nature but I find it does not go very deep. Do they go to the woods at all seasons and alone? That is my test.
“I am glad you apply such a mild test,” Adam wrote in her next letter, “to an ‘earnest love of nature’ – that of visiting the woods alone! Surely there must be a good many men among women, who can bear it. ” She admitted, though, she knew few.
Though the conversation would continue for at least another two years, Adam and Burroughs kept their discussion to birds, frogs, and nature in general. Burroughs probably never made assumptions again as to the gender of a writer!