2007 - 2022

Burns in America: the Property and the Solace of Mankind

Some draft notes on Robert Burns impact on cultural memory, popular culture and literature in America.


Some of America’s love-affair with Burns taps into his revolutionary spirit and ideas (Ralph Emerson and John Steinbeck explicitly do this ) but others are more saccharine. The Scotsman reports that “there’s a particularly unique tribute erected in Atlanta, Georgia. ..the Burns Club of Atlanta completed a life-size replica of Burns Cottage in 1910, using measurements taken from the original cottage on land donated by one of the Coca-Cola Company’s founders. To this day, the club still meets in the recently-remodeled cottage, which faithfully replicates the original “but, ben and byre” layout of Burns’s childhood home.”

If ‘Burns’ as a replica of a romanticised past for Americans is a strange thing for us to comprehend, and Burns “revolutionary” connections seem tenuous, Prof Gerard Carruthers, of the Centre for Burns Studies at Glasgow University has traced the political impact of Burns through the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass traveled to Scotland to visit Burns birthplace and directly lobbied Lincoln for immediate abolition of slavery, citing Burns, who Lincoln began to quote and study intensely.

According to Prof Carruthers: “What I think is going on is that Lincoln, like many New World cultural figures, is looking for something that isn’t British, isn’t English.

“Burns to some extent plays into that alternative culture that America is looking for.”

The Glasgow-based Burns scholar Arun Sood has said: “Douglass was a hugely gifted orator and a very charismatic individual. During the civil war era, Douglass frequently alluded to Burns’s songs and poems, particularly when trying to encourage men of colour to enlist in the Union army.”

“He would tout the line that A Man’s A Man For A’ That, regardless of colour.”

Sam Wheeler, state historian of Illinois, says: “Lincoln also heard the words of Robert Burns complete in the Scottish dialect, acting out the poems and Lincoln picks up that habit.”

So it’s argued that Burns compelling celebration of liberty – through Douglass and Lincoln – directly leads to abolition. But there’s a more popular and technical innovation going on that leads directly to his wider influence on American culture.

As Sood points out: “While Robert Burns entertained possible future patrons in the months following the 1787 Edinburgh and London editions, his volume, quite remarkably, was already being sold and advertised several thousand miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean in the early American Republic.” (1)

Unbeknownst to Burns, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was transported and repeatedly pirated in the United States following the publication of the Edinburgh Edition, primarily due to – in addition to the poets popularity among emigrant Scots – the absence of any international copyright legislation following the American Revolution.”

Sood argues convincingly that “convergences in mass media and print culture” led to Burns widespread fame and popularity in America and his association with a new form of popular democratic culture: the mass production of poetry novels and books.


We know that Robert Burns was Bob Dylan’s greatest inspiration,  and we know too that Maya Angelou was inspired by Burns from an early age. We know also that some of American literature’s finest, such as John Steinbeck, took the title of his novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ from ‘To a Mouse’. Maybe not so widely known is the same wee moose scuttled over to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Robert Burns’s Mouse in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Miller’s Death of a Salesman).

Brian Reinking tells us that Arthur Miller had a job tending hundreds of mice in a Michigan University laboratory and tended them with some loving care.

Reinking writes that Miller had been working in Brooklyn at the time of the crash in the 1930s. In his autobiography Miller recalls: “Within a year or two of the collapse, the papers were reporting that in New York City alone there were nearly a thousand people who had been psychologically traumatised to the point where they would probably never be able to work again…it was hope that had gone out of them, the life illusion and the ability to believe again.”

Reinking writes: “The paralytic responses of some of these New Yorkers in the 1930s to their wrecked prospects sound similar to the persona’s musing in “To a Mouse” as he contemplates the difference between the mouse’s newly changed condition and a person’s regret over the past and anxiety about the future:

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear!

Steinbeck and Miller weren’t the only American literary influences Burns had, if we look at Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye we’ll see it also takes inspiration from Burns and the song Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. Holden Caulfield talks of a dream he has where he saves children from running over the edge of a cliff:

“I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

According to Ian Hamilton’s tragic biography In Search of J.D. Salinger (Bloomsbury, 1998) Salinger’s mother was a Scot, Marie Jillich, who changed her name to Miriam. Angus Cameron was chief editor at Little Brown when Catcher in the Rye was published and arranged for the reclusive author to travel and hide the summer the book was released. He traveled to Dublin and the Hebrides (of which more another day.)

In his 1996 essay “Whitman on Robert Burns: An Early Essay Recovered,” Gary Scharnhorst draws attention to an early critical essay on Burns that had “hitherto been lost to scholarship.” The essay to which he refers, titled “A Modern Poet on The Scotch Bard,” first appeared in a newspaper titled Our Land and Time in January 1875 and was reprinted in the London Academy in February that same year. Whitman later revised the essay for publication – changing the title to “Robert Burns as Poet and Person”—in the New York Critic (1882).
In it Whitman declares that: “. . . there are many things in Burns’s poems and character that specially endear him to America. He was essentially a Republican–would have been at home in the Western United States, and probably become eminent there. He was an average sample of the good-natured, warm-blooded, proud-spirited, amative, alimentive, convivial, man of the decent-born everywhere and any how. Without the race of which he is a distinct specimen, (and perhaps his poems) America and her powerful Democracy could not exist to-day—could not project with unparallel’d historic sway in the future.”
But it seems that Whitman was more of a fan of Burns than Burns Suppers, writing: “To-day, and especially to-night at the suppers and drinks and speeches, how much will be said, to be afterwards gradually filtered through East and West, North and South, about Robert Burns particularly and about poetry and poets in general…. First premising to thee, reader dear, that the undersigned has been courteously summoned by letter and ticket to more than one of to-night’s supper anniversaries, the way may then be clearer and the reason why for thoughts like the following, not of extravagant eulogium, with voice pitched high and fervent to the pleasant smell of hot Scotch, but alone by the fireside in the invalid room, weighing the canny Caledonian bard in friendly scale, yet seeking to strike the eternal averages.”
His fellow poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was more effusive. In a speech delivered in Boston on  the 100th anniversary of Burns’s birth, on January 25 1859 Emerson wrote (2):

“Each for himself, – by the fact that Robert Burns, the poet, re-presents in the mind of men to-day that great uprising against the armed and privileged minorities, that uprising which worked politically in the American and French Revolutions, and which, not in governments so much as in education and social order, has changed the face of the world.In order for this destiny, his birth, breeding and fortunes were low. His organic sentiment was absolute independence, and resting as it should on a life of labor. No man existed who could look down on him. They that looked into his eyes saw that they might look down the sky as easily.’ His muse and teaching was common sense, joyful, aggressive, irresistible. Not Latimer, nor Luther struck more telling blows against false theology than did this brave singer. The Confession of Augsburg, the Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man, and the Marseillaise, are not more weighty documents in the history of freedom than the songs of Burns. His satire has lost none of its edge. His musical arrows yet sing through the air. He is so substantially a reformer that I find his grand plain sense in close chain with the greatest masters, – Rabelais, Shakspeare in comedy, Cervantes, Butler, and Burns.”

He continues:

“He is an exceptional genius. The people who care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns. It was indifferent – they thought who saw him – whether he wrote verse or not : he could have done anything else as well. Yet how true a poet is he ! And the poet, too, of poor men, of gray hodden and the guernsey coat and the blouse. He has given voice to all the experiences of common life ; he has endeared the farmhouse and cottage, patches and poverty, beans and barley ; ale, the poor man’s wine ; hardship ; the fear of debt ; the dear society of weans and wife, of brothers and sisters, proud of each other, knowing so few and finding amends for want and obscurity in books and thoughts.’ What a love of Nature, and, shall I say it ? of middle-class Nature. Not like Goethe, in the stars, or like Byron, in the ocean, or Moore, in the luxurious East, but in the homely landscape which the poor see around them, – bleak leagues of pasture and stubble, ice and sleet and rain and snow-choked brooks ; birds, hares, field-mice, thistles and heather, which he daily knew. How many ” Bonny Doons ” and ” John Anderson my jo’s ” and ” Auld lang synes ” all around the earth have his verses been applied to ! And his love-songs still woo and melt the youths and maids ; the farm-work, the country holiday, the fishing-cobble are still his debtors to-day.”

“And as he was thus the poet of the poor, anxious, cheerful, working humanity, so had he the language of low life. He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. 1t is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes ; he would bring them into the churches ; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, black-smiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. But I am detaining you too long. The memory of Burns, – I am afraid heaven and earth have taken too good care of it to leave us anything to say. The west winds are murmuring it. Open the windows behind you, and hearken for the incoming tide, what the waves say of it. The doves perching always on the eaves of the Stone Chapel opposite, may know something about it. Every name in broad Scotland keeps his fame bright. The memory of Burns, – every man’s, every boy’s and girl’s head carries snatches of his songs, and they say them by heart, and, what is strangest of all, never learned them from a book, but from mouth to mouth. The wind whispers them, the birds whistle them, the corn, barley, and bulrushes hoarsely rustle them, nay, the music-boxes at Geneva are framed and toothed to play them ; the hand-organs of the Savoyards in all cities repeat them, and the chimes of hells ring them in the spires. They are the property and the solace of mankind.”

But, perhaps no American poet owes more to Burns than John Greenleaf Whittier, the so-called ‘Quaker Poet’ of Massachusetts. Whittier and Burns shared a farming background. The story goes that Whittier always kept a copy of Burns’s poetry in his pocket while working on the family farm. Whittier wrote:

“But who his human heart has laid
To Nature’s bosom nearer?
Who sweetened toil like him, or paid
To love a tribute dearer?”


Burns and wider Scottish cultural influence is right across and through America, coming by boat, by fiddle and by song.

According to writer Stuart Cosgrove, the founder of Stax Records Jim Stewart was a talented fiddle player in a Scottish country dance band, named the Canyon Cowboys.

He was from an ancestral Scottish family. Stewart and his sister established STAX initially to sell to the Hillbilly Market in Tennessee, and took cheap studio space on McLemore Avenue Memphis converting the front into a record shop. Over time they were selling more R&B to locals and gradually, shifted emphasis of label from Scottish Country to Soul. (3)

If nowadays American popular culture is replete with freakish – borderline racist Scots characters – that was not always the case.

Take this from Maxine Sullivan in 1955 …


or this from Benny Goodman and Ms Martha Tilton a year earlier …





But if we are to make sense of Burns universal appeal and his transfer across the Atlantic? The poet Don Paterson writes in his selection of Burns Poems (Faber and Faber):

“Much of it comes down, I think, to Burns’s most important insight, which is that the spiritual, the social, the sexual, the natural and the political are coterminous and even consubstantial human realms – not competing sensitivities that happen to be sharing the same organism. Burns felt that if you sang one you should sing them all.”

If Burns translation across the Atlantic traverses from sweet and sickly to jazz and literary – it makes sense that it also passes through the folk stream of Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan.

Here’s this remarkable tribute from Woodie Guthrie in 1947.

To That Man Robert Burns ‘ by Woody Guthrie 1947

Dear Robert Burns,

You skipped the big town streets just like I done, you ducked the crosstown cop just like I ducked, you dodged behind a beanpole to beat the bigtime dick and you very seldom stopped off in any big city where the rigged corn wasn’t drying not the hot vine didn’t help you do your talking.

Your talking was factual figures of the biggest sort, though. Your talking had the graphboard and the chart and had something else most singers seem to miss, the very kiss of warm dew on the stalk.

Your words turned into songs and floated upstream and then turned into rains and drifted down and lodged and swung and clung to drifts of driftwood to warm and heat and fertilize new seeds. Your words were of the upheath and the down, your words were more from heather than from town. Your thoughts came more from weather than from schoolroom and more from shifting vines than from the book.

I go to the church halfway between the farm and halfway into the town and halfway back. I sing and dance at just one altar only and cry with the folks that would like to be more fertile. If there’s a bench I kneel down to laugh and cry on, I suppose it’s this bench with the kids waiting along it while us dads and us mamas stamp and stomp around looking for something to give our trip more sense. I worship in the limbroof arbors of pure fertility and very little else makes sense to me.Like Robert Burns and Jesus and some others I believe we ought to learn how to make a law or two to help us brothers love the sisters more.

I bought your little four-inch square book when I was a torpedoed seaman walking around over your clods and sods of Glasgow and the little book says on the outer cover, Fifty Songs of Burns, the price 4d, and I read from page to page and found you covered a woman on every page. I thought as I picked the book up here at home that maybe the book ought to have some kind of a new name. Like, Fifty Pages of Fifty Women, enlarged upon by Robert Burns.

Well, Rob, it’s awfully rainy here in Coney today. Been drizzling like this now for several days to make some folks happy and some folks sad, since this is a big resort town and folks pay good money to come here from all over. Some like the rain today and some folks hate it. I like it and love it for several reasons, like you’d love it, to see our new seeds grow in this old trashy back yard, and to see these green shoots, roots, limbs and leaves start dancing like Tirza and her Wine Bath. And because Marjorie just painted some flowers of a wild and jumpy color on the pink wall of the baby’s room so when he does squirm his way out here to see his light of the day he’ll see some twisting flowers like you seen all around your rock hearths and heatherhills there all over your Scotland. This rain is making the grass and flowers spud out, the roots to crawl like guerrillas, and the house to take a better shape, so’s our little shoot and shaver can have these growing limbs to give him such a good fast start that maybe he can grow up in four years with us giving him pushes to be has happy and dancy and glad and joking and pretty as our little Stackybones was on that Sunday’s afternoon when she got dressed up her very prettiest in her pinkest dress and greenest ribbon to look just as nice and sweet and glad and pretty as any of your fifty girls you raved about. And fifty times fifty. The only good part about living you really did miss, Bob, was not to get to stick around a house like Marjorie keeps and see a kid like Cathy dance and grow. You died at thirty-four which was a bit too young for you to get to see these things I’m seeing in the faces of my kids.

This is why I’ll keep you posted and brought up to date as the year leafs out and me and Marjorie have more kids of the kinds you missed out on.
– Woody Guthrie, June 9, 1947


Image credit: Calum Colvin



(1) (Post)-Revolutionary Print Networks: Pirated Editions of Robert Burns’ Poetry in The United States of America, Arun Sood, University of Glasgow
(2) Reinking, Brian. “Robert Burns’s Mouse In Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ And Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman.’” The Arthur Miller Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 2013, pp. 15–32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42909101.
(3) see Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Speech at Burns Centenary Dinner in Boston, January 1859,” in Donald A. Low, ed., Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1974), 434-436.
(4) From Stuart Cosgrove, author of ‘Detroit 67: The Year that Changed Soul’ (2015)

Comments (14)

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  1. Thom Cross says:

    As one who often considers himself a “Burns scholar” I am absolutely overwhelmed by the excellence of your essay. Deeply I say “well done”.

    1. Oh wow – thank you so much – as I said a work in progress

    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      I would not class myself as a ‘Burns scholar’, but, I should like to add my endorsement of your piece to Mr Cross’s.

      1. Thanks Alasdair, always a bit cautious sharing incomplete work

  2. Thom Cross says:

    A good book for international Burns folk
    Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture
    BySharon Alker, Leith Davis

  3. Sandy Monteath says:

    Thank you for that.
    He had a similar effect in Russia ?
    He is the only poet who has achieved this and is available through all levels of their education.
    To this day he is celebrated in every far corner of the Russian Federation.
    Scotland and Russia have very close ties going back many centuries.

    1. Yes he did Sandy – the subject of a future essay I think, interesting comparisons to be made?

  4. Henry Holland says:

    Mike, this is a great start & why not aim to develop a book out of it? Your book on Burns and America. A road movie book. Not a purely academic book. Looking at both the saccharine, the life size replica cottages; and interviewing eople still involved on that level; and tracing more deeply the intellectual currents. Like how and by whom were the first 1780s American pirate copies read? As you discuss Whitman on Burns, have you read Harold Bloom on Whitman? (2005 edition of Leaves if Grass, I.e. 150th anniversary edition of 1st edition, introduction. ) Bloom links Scottish Presbyterian ministers in the US, the Kentucky Revivals of 1800, and Whitman ‘s “American Religion “. Surely Burns was also being read by some of those ministers, politically more radical than their counterparts who had stayed in Scotland. One of many strands such a book could explore. American publishers would jump at it, especially as written by a Scot!

    1. Thanks for the idea Henry, its a good one. I havent read Bloom on Whitman. On it. Thanks again.

  5. Rob Ross says:

    Wonderful stuff, Mike. Much appreciated

  6. Bibbit Blair says:


  7. Gordon Purvis says:


    Is the Maja Angelou doc available anywhere. Recall great scenes with Dick Gaughan.

    1. I cant find it – maybe someone else can?

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