“I know of only three poets in this century who bring a large measure of thought and emotion to their task,” wrote naturalist John Burroughs in the early 1920s. “I refer to William Vaughn Moody, to John Russell McCarthy […] and to Robert Loveman.”
While he may not be a household name today, Sierra Madre poet John Russell McCarthy was widely admired in his own time, drawing the praise of Burroughs and others. His poems appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine and other publications.
Born in Huntingdon, PA, in 1889, McCarthy moved to California in 1920 and worked as a journalist with the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. He also edited a La Cañada-based publication called Camellia House Journal, worked as a forest ranger, and taught creative writing at adult high schools in Pasadena, Monrovia and El Monte.
At age 25, McCarthy experienced the unwelcome distinction of having novelist D.H. Lawrence call one of his poems “nasty, obscene, vulgar in the last degree.” Four years later, however, a book of poems caught the attention of Burroughs, who declared that McCarthy had written “the best nature poetry since Emerson.” A friendship soon blossomed and the following year—1919—Burroughs invited McCarthy to stay with him at his cabin near Roxbury, New York.
“His acquaintance is the event of years to me,” noted Burroughs in his diary. “His poems have quality, like some rare new fruit.” For the next two years, the pair remained close, and Burroughs became a mentor to McCarthy, helping to publicize his poetry.
Sierra Madre proved a common refuge for both men. For Burroughs, it was a pleasant vacation spot; for McCarthy, it became a lifelong hideaway from what he called "the crowded skyscrapers of our fevered cities.”
In the winter of 1921, Burroughs made a sojourn to Pasadena, where he often spent his winters. Arriving with his granddaughter and secretary on Feb. 3, 1921, he recorded in his diary: “Came to Pasadena Glen [...] a little bungalow called ‘The Bluebird,’ snug and comfortable. … Life seems worth living again. Drive to Sierra Madre P.O. today. Now at 7 p.m. I hear the patter of rain.”
Sadly, Burroughs’s stay near Sierra Madre was a short one. On Feb. 23, he fell ill and had to be taken to a Pasadena hospital, where he stayed for several weeks. He was released and returned briefly to Pasadena Glen, but departed for the East Coast shortly thereafter. On his way, while passing through Kingsville, OH, Burroughs died on a train on March 29, 1921, at the age of 83.
Though there is no record of McCarthy meeting Burroughs during this trip, it is probable that the young poet did pay a visit to Pasadena Glen and might have even been encouraged to move their by his mentor.
McCarthy may also have been introduced to the Mount Wilson Trail by Burroughs, who had hiked it on a previous visit in 1911.
Fellow Sierra Madre resident and author Lee Shippey later described one of McCarthy’s books as “the poetic thinking of a man trudging the trails of Mount Wilson,” and a 1941 profile in the L.A. Times noted that McCarthy took “strenuous daily hikes in the mountains.”
Whether or not Burroughs had any influence on McCarthy's decision to settle in Sierra Madre, McCarthy found it fit perfectly with his view that “the writer’s place is somewhere out of town."
From a secluded house on Vista Circle Drive, McCarthy produced a diverse body of work that ranged from an epic science fiction poem to a ballad account of the expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. He also wrote a biography of Los Angeles DWP head William Mulholland, and many articles on California history.
McCarthy continued to reside in Sierra Madre for many years, and in 1928 won the John Burroughs Medal for his collection Nature Poems. He died in 1973.