Whittier, John Greenleaf
John Greenleaf Whittier 1807-1892
American poet, journalist, essayist, editor, and hymn writer.
A noted abolitionist and social reformer, Whittier is chiefly remembered today for his poetry. In his most popular works, he used rural and biblical imagery to describe nineteenth-century New England life. With the favorable reception of poems such as Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl (1866), Whittier joined the ranks of such other enduring American poets as William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Whittier's reputation has suffered in the twentieth century because of the didacticism and dated nature of his works; his significant role in American literary history, however, is still acknowledged today.
Whittier was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, to Quaker parents. Though he had little formal education, he studied the Bible and the works of John Milton, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Robert Burns. He was particularly impressed by the Scottish poet Burns, whose beautiful descriptions of rural farm scenes resonated strongly with the New England youth. Physically frail, Whittier was unsuited for farm work and dreamed of becoming a poet. In 1826 his sister Elizabeth anonymously sent his poem "The Exile's Departure" to the Newburyport Free Press. The poem so impressed editor and noted social reformer William Lloyd Garrison that he encouraged Whittier to contribute more of his work. He also helped Whittier attain his first literary position as editor of the political magazine the American Manufacturer, in 1829. A year later Whittier became editor of the widely read New England Weekly Review. Soon he published his first collection of tales and poems, Legends of New England in Prose and Verse (1831). Forced to resign his editorial responsibilities due to ill health and his father's death, Whittier returned to Haverhill in 1832. Influenced again by his mentor Garrison, Whittier wrote the first of many antislavery tracts, an essay entitled Justice and Expediency; or, Slavery Considered with a View to Its Rightful and Effectual Remedy, Abolition (1833). Aware that his abolitionist stance might jeopardize popular reception of his poetry, Whittier nevertheless chose to devote himself to what he considered a just and noble cause. For nearly twelve years he concentrated exclusively on abolitionist issues in his essays, prose, and poetry, while working for the Anti-Slavery Society. Whittier also worked for social change through political channels, campaigning extensively for candidates who proposed legislative answers to anti-slavery issues. ("Ichabod" , considered one of Whittier's final abolitionist poems, reflected his shock and anger at the decision by his personal friend, the politician Daniel Webster, to support a compromise with Southern slaveholders.) In 1843, while continuing to work for abolition, Whittier resumed a more mainstream literary career, taking his themes primarily from everyday New England life. He continued examining these themes in his poetry and autobiographical sketches throughout the rest of his poetical career. He also contributed hymns to several popular hymnals. He reached his literary apex in 1866 with the publication of his most successful ballad, Snow-Bound. This work helped Whittier achieve renown as a literary figure. Snow-Bound was both a critical and a financial success, enabling its author to live comfortably until his death in 1892.
The poetry and prose of Whittier's early years clearly reflect his social concerns and commitment to abolitionism, expressed in his pamphlet Justice and Expediency. The poems of these years, such as those published in Poems (1838), were generally propaganda pieces. With the publication of Lays of My Home, and Other Poems (1843), Whittier achieved a better-received balance of poetry and polemics, translating his social concerns into themes of regional pride, brotherly love, and religious ideals. Whittier employed New England imagery in his only novel, Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay (1849). This work, in the form of a fictional journal, depicts life in the New England colonies through the eyes of a young English girl. In the following years Whittier composed many of his ballads, which show an increasing disengagement from political themes in favor of New England imagery, autobiographical sketches, and Quaker philosophy. The founding of the magazine The Atlantic Monthly in 1857 provided Whittier with a wide reading audience. Some of his finest poetic achievements were first published in the Atlantic during these years, including "Skipper Arisen's Ride" and "Telling the Bees" (1857). Whittier also wrote Snow-Bound, widely considered his best work, during this period. This poem, a nostalgic description of family interactions while snowbound by an unexpected winter storm, encapsulates Whittier's love of family, New England, and the past. The poem's emotional depth is thought to have derived from Whittier's grief over the deaths of his mother and sister. Today the work is considered as a precursor to the pastoral poems of such twentieth-century poets as Robert Frost.
Critical appraisal of Whittier's work has passed through several phases over the years. His early critics, through the end of the Civil War, expressed admiration for the emotional impact and polemical effectiveness of his verse but pointed to numerous technical flaws, such as clumsy prose and faulty rhyme schemes. James Russell Lowell commended Whittier's boldness and sincerity, yet never considered him a first-rate poet. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe called Whittier a "fine versifier," but would not include his name in the ranks of premier American poets. However, Whittier was a popular and respected writer, especially following the publication of Snow-Bound. The overwhelming popularity of this poem marked the beginning of the second phase of critical reaction, which lasted until the 1920s. During this period Whittier was esteemed as one of America's most admired literary figures. His personal life, described as saintly by biographers of the time, became inseparable from the evaluation of his work. His death prompted an outpouring of loving remembrances and fond memorials, few of which objectively assessed the quality of his work. Attitudes towards Whittier's poetry changed considerably beginning in the late 1920s, when critics took him to task for being overly moralistic and sentimental. Most commentators agreed, however, on his importance as a social reformer. His work subsequently received little critical attention until the 1950s, when interest in his poetry saw a modest revival. Many modern critics, such as John B. Pickard, consider the poet a paradoxical blend of success and failure and maintain that he should be remembered as a significant historical figure rather than for his contributions to literature. His early works survive mainly as historical documents that represent a turbulent era in American history, but a few of his best-loved pieces, such as Snow-Bound, endure as nostalgic pastorals and continue to be studied today. Recent critics tend to concur with Whittier's own appraisal of his place in history: "I am not one of the master singers and don't pose as one. By the grace of God, I am only what I am and don't wish to pass for more."
"The Exile's Departure" (poetry) 1826; published in newspaper Newburyport Free Press
Legends of New England in Prose and Verse (stories and poetry) 1831
Moll Pitcher and the Minstrel Girl (poetry) 1832; revised, 1840
Justice and Expediency; or, Slavery Considered with a View to Its Rightful and Effectual Remedy, Abolition (essay) 1833
Mogg Megone (poetry) 1836
Poems Written during the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, Between the Years 1830 and 1838 (poetry) 1837; also published as Poems [revised edition] 1838
Lays of My Home, and Other Poems (poetry) 1843
The Stranger in Lowell (criticism) 1845
Voices of Freedom (poetry and essays) 1846
The Supernaturalism of New-England (poetry and prose) 1847
Leaves from Margaret Smith's Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay (novel) 1849
*Old Portraits and Modern Sketches (poetry and biographical sketches) 1850
Songs of Labor, and Other Poems (poetry) 1850
The Chapel of the Hermit, and Other Poems (poetry) 1853
Literary Recreations and Miscellanies (prose) 1854
**The Panorama, and Other Poems (poetry)...
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SOURCE: "Whittier the Poet," in John Greenleaf Whittier, The Macmillan Company, 1907, pp. 150-70.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1902, Higginson discusses the influence of religion and of moral and philosophical issues on Whittier's distinctive American style.]
In . . . considering Whittier's more general claims as a poet, we must accept Lord Bacon's fine definition of poetry that "It hath something divine in it, because it raises the mind and hurries it into sublimity, by conforming the shows of things to the desires of the soul, instead of subjecting the soul to external things, as reason and history do." In this noble discrimination,—which one wonders not to have been cited among the rather inadequate arguments to prove that Lord Bacon was the real Shakespeare,—we have the key, so far as there is any, for the change from the boy Whittier, with his commonplace early rhymes, into the man who reached the sublime anthem of "My Soul and I." He also was "hurried into sublimity."
In the case of [Oliver Wendell] Holmes, it is a very common remark that his prose, especially "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," will outlast his poems, except perhaps "The Chambered Nautilus." No one can make any similar suggestion in regard to Whittier, whose best poetry wholly surpasses his best prose, in respect to grasp and permanence. It is, indeed, rather surprising to see how...
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SOURCE: "Whittier Criticism Over the Years," in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. C, No. 3, July, 1964, pp. 159-82.
[In the following excerpt, the author contrasts the backgrounds and biases of various Whittier critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.]
From time to time it is interesting as well as profitable to review the course of the critical fortunes of our writers and to compare the evaluations of their contemporaries with those of a later generation. Such an examination is particularly interesting in the case of a writer like John Greenleaf Whittier, who enjoyed great popular acclaim.
The period of about one hundred and twenty years of Whittier criticism covered by this survey falls neatly in two parts divided roughly by Whittier's death at the turn of the century. The criticism in the first period has two disadvantages which that of the second does not have to face. When an author is still writing, the critic has only part of his ultimate production with which to deal. Furthermore, he is aware of the author himself, alive, responsive, and, in some part, influential as a personal force. This force, in the case of Whittier, was obviously much more powerful than is the case with many writers. Death probably makes it easier for the critic to be more objective. In addition, death generally terminates abruptly the likelihood that more material will have to be...
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SOURCE: "The Growth of Whittier's Mind—Three Phases," in Emerson Society Quarterly, Vol. 50, 1968, First Quarter, pp. 119-26.
[In the following excerpt, Clark traces the development of Whittier's themes from an early taste for "localistic sensationalism" through his championship of abolition to a broad concern for human welfare.]
After one has analyzed Whittier's individual poems or fragments of his work, it is well to view him briefly in complete profile as a kind of man against the sky. Broadly speaking, he seems to have had three successive centers of emphasis—I say emphasis because there are of course minor exceptions which do not seriously invalidate this interpretation.
Up to 1833 Whittier was primarily concerned with the literary aspects of the sensational, the lurid, or the colorfully superstitious, usually approached from a localistic angle. The type is represented in "The Demon's Cave" (1831) in which he says there is in this actual New Hampshire cave "something to romance dear" since it is associated with "the restless phantoms of murdered men," the ghostly gibber and the demon's yell, although such superstitions have now passed "away at the glance of truth." Mary Pray's A Study of Whittier's Apprenticeship (1930) printed 109 of these early poems, and others have been printed by W. M. Merrill in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, XCI (1955), pp....
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SOURCE: "Whittier," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXIX, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 98-133.
[Poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel All the King's Men. In the following excerpt, he relates Whitter's maturation as a poet to his work as a journalist and political propagandist.]
When Whittier, at the age of twenty-six, came to knock "Pegasus on the head", the creature he laid low was, indeed, not much better than the tanner's superannuated donkey. In giving up his poetry he gave up very little. Looking back on the work he had done up to that time, we can see little achievement and less promise of growth. He had the knack, as he put it in "The Nervous Man", for making rhymes "as mechanically as a mason piles one brick above another", but nothing that he wrote had the inwardness, the organic quality, of poetry. The stuff, in brief, lacked content, and it lacked style. Even when he was able to strike out poetic phrases, images, or effects, he was not able to organize a poem; his poems usually began anywhere and ended when the author got tired. If occasionally we see a poem begin with a real sense of poetry, the poetry gets quickly lost in some abstract idea. Even a poem as late as "The Last Walk in Autumn" (1857) suffers in this way. It opens with a fine stanza like this:
O'er the bare woods, whose outstretched hands
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SOURCE: "The Artistry of Whittier's Margaret Smith's Journal," in Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. CVIII, No. 3, July, 1972, pp. 235-43.
[In the following essay, Ringe contends that Whittier's major prose work, Margaret Smith's Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, 1678-79, achieves artistic unity though the author's development of his narrator as a strong central consciousness in the work.]
The major prose work of John Greenleaf Whittier, Margaret Smith's Journal in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, 1678-79, has evoked a critical response that has ranged from the lukewarm to the enthusiastic. Although most of the critics praise the accurate picture of colonial New England life that the book presents,1 opinions about its artistic success have varied between Whitman Bennett's view that it is only "a pleasing little effort" that should not be considered "a truly notable achievement"2 to Edward Wagenknecht's opinion that it is "one of the inexplicably neglected classics of American literature, . . . next to Snow-Bound, Whittier's unquestionable masterpiece."3 Those critics who have discussed the work in detail tend to support the latter view. Lewis Leary thinks the novel a charming one and compares it briefly with Huckleberry Finn in the way the material is presented to the reader;4 and John P. Pickard, in...
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SOURCE: "Whittier's Snow-Bound: The Circle of Our Hearth and the Discourse on Domesticity," in Studies in the American Renaissance 1993, edited by Joel Myerson, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 339-53.
[In the following excerpt, Rocks relates Whittier's poem Snow-Bound to nineteenth-century debates on home and family.]
When John Greenleaf Whittier's younger sister Elizabeth, the companion of his mature years, died on 3 September 1864, he suffered a loss no less severe than if a wife of many years had died. More sociable than her shy brother, Elizabeth had been at the center of his life, the person whose support had helped nurture a public career of considerable success and fame and a private domestic life of exceptional warmth and security. Writing to his wide circle of friends, particularly to Gail Hamilton, Grace Greenwood, and Lydia Maria Child, he expressed the profound depression that her death had induced, but also his acceptance of the will of God that had determined the course of his sister's illness and death. To Annie Fields, his publisher's wife and among his closest women friends, he wrote: "I find it difficult even now to understand and realize all I have lost. But I sorrow without repining, and with a feeling of calm submission to the Will which I am sure is best."1
While acceptance of the divine ways distinguishes Whittier's letters to his...
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Currier, Thomas Franklin. A Bibliography of John Greenleaf Whittier. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1937, 16 p.
Bibliography prepared by the early twentieth century's leading Whittier scholar.
Von Frank, Albert J. Whittier: A Comprehensive Annotative Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1976, 273 p.
Considered one of the most complete Whittier bibliographies.
Whittier, John Greenleaf. The Complete Poetical Works of Whittier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1894, 542 p.
Includes an annotated bibliography with biographical sketch and introduction written by Whittier.
Pickard, Samuel T. Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., Riverside Press, 1894.
The "official" biography sanctioned by Whittier before his death. Although Pickard's biography greatly romanticizes Whittier's political motivation, the work is still considered a standard source for its broad survey of Whittier's letters and memoirs.
Pollard, John A. John Greenleaf Whittier: Friend of Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., Riverside Press, 1949, 615 p....
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