Essayist, environmentalist, educator. Burroughs was born on March 7, 1942, in Conway, South Carolina, to Franklin Gorham Burroughs, Sr. and Geraldine Bryan. In 1964 he earned his B.A. from the University of the South, and then at Harvard University he completed his A.M. in 1965 and his Ph.D. in 1970. In 1968 he began teaching at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he continued until his retirement in the fall of 2000. He was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2012.
Burroughs’s work, often compared to that of New England essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau, was collected in Best American Essays in 1987 and 1989. In 1989 he was awarded the Pushcart Prize for nature essays. His collection Billy Watson’s Croker Sack appeared in 1991, followed by a paperback edition in 1992. That same year his book Horry and the Waccamaw was published, and it was later reprinted in 1998 with the title The River Home: A Return to the Carolina Low Country.
The River Home tells the story of Burroughs’s canoe trip down the Waccamaw River, focusing on the South Carolina counties of Horry and Georgetown, the same country landscapes that he remembered from childhood. His journey was inspired by his discovery of Nathaniel Holmes Bishop’s The Voyage of the Paper Canoe (1878), recounting that author’s East Coast river voyage. Donald Dederick wrote that Burroughs’s story “is not simply a recapitulation of a famous canoe trip, but a well-written tribute to an area and its people, economy, and history.” The River Home is about the intimate relationship between human beings and the land— about how people’s customs and language reflect their environment in complex ways.
In 1999 Burroughs’s “Compression Wood” was collected in Best American Essays. Part literary analysis and part personal narrative of a trip to South Carolina, the piece once again takes up his familiar theme of the relationship between people and place. Driving north through Pennsylvania after visiting his native Conway, Burroughs thinks about the questions “What do you do?” and “Where do you come from?” Along with philosophical speculation and poetry analysis, the essay accomplishes a sketch of a man called McIver, whom Burroughs has grown up with and who embodies his environmental values. Working with lumber salvaged from Hurricane Hugo wreckage, McIver says, “People who don’t work with primary resources don’t understand reality. And not understanding reality is a functional definition of insanity.”
“Compression Wood” contains astute cultural observation as well: “When you stop for gas in the Virginia tidewater, you hear that something has happened to the language. Tongues seem to have lost their agility. Vowels and consonants thicken and soften; cadences and sentences ooze and eddy and ebb, and you can stand there, half listening to the attendant and half thinking of the silt-laden, leisurely rivers and streams and swamps that wind through this flat country and in fact created it.” The essay’s insights reflect much of Burroughs’s philosophy: “Where you’re from is never simply a matter of geography. It involves intersections of history, economics, family, and so forth, as well as the coordinates of latitude and longitude. Self-location, with or without maps, is ultimately as complicated and incomplete a process as self-knowledge.”
In 2009, Burroughs won the prestigious John Burroughs Award for natural history writing for his nonfiction volume entitled Confluence: Merrymeeting Bay. With photographs by Hellen Perry, the book focuses on the residents of Maine who live at the junction of two major rivers with two separate watersheds.
Burroughs, Franklin. “Compression Wood.” American Scholar 67 (spring 1998): 123–37.
Crum, Robert. “Book Reviews—‘Billy Watson’s Croker Sack’ by Franklin Burroughs.” Georgia Review 45 (winter 1991): 808.
Dederick, Donald H. “Sports & Recreation—‘Horry and the Waccamaw’ by Franklin Burroughs.” Library Journal 117 (January 1992): 140.
Ives, Nancy R. “Literature—‘Billy Watson’s Croker Sack’ by Franklin Burroughs.” Library Journal 116 (January 1991): 104.