John Greenleaf Whittier

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1992

Article abstract: Over a career spanning more than sixty years, Whittier produced a large body of poetry that was not only extremely popular in its own day but also reflected with remarkable clarity and consistency some of the cultural and social attitudes of nineteenth century America.

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Early Life

The record of John Greenleaf Whittier’s early life is almost a paradigm of the American myth about the country boy who, through talent and diligence, comes to take his place among the leaders of his generation. The second of four children born to John and Abigail Whittier, John Greenleaf was reared on the family farm in northern Massachusetts. A secluded, lonely tract surrounded by low, rolling hills and forests, the farm sat amid the fertile Merrimack Valley, where the young poet spent his youth helping his father, uncle, and younger brother work the land.

Farm life had its moments of quiet, peaceful beauty, and, as the son of devout Quakers, young Whittier came to appreciate the emotional and religious security instilled by his rural surroundings. By fifteen, he was almost six feet tall and slender with dark, piercing eyes. A quiet boy, he enjoyed reading beside the kitchen fireplace, even dabbling in verses of his own. Besides the Bible, his favorite author was Robert Burns, the Scottish balladeer of the late eighteenth century.

The influence of Burns on Whittier’s poetic taste and technique was to be indelible, from Whittier’s early narrative and legendary poems of New England folklore to the later poetic reminiscences of his mature years. He later recalled, in numerous letters and essays, those early years on the farm when a Yankee peddler would arrive with dry goods for the family and a tale or two for the future poet.

In 1826, at the age of nineteen, Whittier published his first poem. “The Exile’s Departure” appeared in The Newberryport Free Press. Generally regarded as a bad poem, it was Whittier’s first venture into the two worlds that were to occupy him for most of his creative life: politics and poetry. The editor of The Free Press was William Lloyd Garrison, who was already establishing himself as an early opponent of slavery. Garrison recognized Whittier’s literary talent and, in 1828, invited the young man to Boston, Massachusetts, to write for The American Manufacturer. These early efforts were mostly political editorials addressed to the laboring man and his fight for fair working conditions.

Over the next two years, Whittier produced a significant body of work—political editorials, book reviews, poems, sketches—and was gaining a reputation as an honest, fearless journalist. Whittier’s Quaker heritage, in fact, played a crucial role in his development as a writer. Well liked, gentle, and dedicated, he was a lifelong pacifist and a conscientious supporter of social justice. By the early 1830’s, the rumblings of the slavery issue were already being felt. Though he returned to the farm in 1829 and remained there to take care of the family after the death of his father in 1830, Whittier continued to write and work. His health, always brittle, broke down from the strain of overwork—he suffered continually from migraine headaches—but by 1832 he was writing regularly and had decided that politics were to be his serious calling, having concluded that political activity was the way to achieve moral and social reform.

Life’s Work

Though Whittier’s first book, Legends of New-England, was published in 1831, it was merely a hodgepodge of trite verse and light prose that added little to his reputation. Throughout the 1830’s, Whittier’s main focus was on the growing national concern with the issue of slavery. As early as 1833, he produced one of the earliest manifestos on the cause of abolition. Justice and Expediency, a prose pamphlet, took the nation by storm, and Whittier became more famous as a propagandist in the cause of antislavery than as a poet. In December, 1833, he was elected to serve as a delegate to the National Anti-Slavery Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a position that eventually led to his election to the Massachusetts legislature in 1835.

Amid his political life as a propagandist and legislator, he continued to produce poetry in support of his political ideals. The mid-1830’s saw such antislavery poems as “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” a brief account of a black revolutionary in Haiti who suffered treachery by Napoleon Bonaparte and died in chains. “The Slave Ships” of 1834 commemorated the drowning of dozens of African slaves who were thrown overboard from a French ship during an outbreak of contagion. “The Farewell of a Virginia Slave Mother” appeared in 1838 and anticipated, in some of its melodramatic images, the famous passages from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851).

The 1840’s literally signalled a new era for Whittier. By faith (a Quaker), if not by disposition, he had been a zealous reformer and an active intellectual in the abolitionist cause, but with the growing “gentrification” of the country—a burgeoning middle class and a more literate public seeking “polite” literature—Whittier became more interested in celebrating the local and regional beauties of his own New England. However, he still wrote poems and essays in support of the antislavery movement. “Massachusetts to Virginia” (1843), for example, was a rebuke to “the Old Dominion” for coercing the state of Massachusetts to extradite an escaped slave. “The Christian Slave” of the same year was an angry denouncement of the hypocrisy involved in selling a slave who was considered more valuable for being a Christian. Alongside these indictments, whose bitter tone clearly shows the moral outrage of the poet, Whittier produced dozens of quiet, sunny poems of New England places, scenes, and characters. Lays of My Home and Other Poems appeared in 1843. A collection of ballads, New England legends, and nature poems, the book included the kind of work that was to establish Whittier as a major poet of his generation. “The Merrimack” was a reminiscence of the river that ran by his boyhood farm. “The Bridal of Pennacock” retold the American Indian legend about the fidelity of a wife, and “The New Wife and the Old” was a “Yankee Faust” tale that Whittier remembered being told as a boy.

He continued to earn a living as an editor and major contributor to a number of newspapers and magazines, most notably The National Era, to which he contributed more than one hundred poems and hundreds of essays between 1847 and the late 1850’s. This was a most prolific period in Whittier’s career, during which many of his best-known poems appeared. One of his most famous, “Ichabod,” was published in 1850. Whittier had read a speech by statesman Daniel Webster, who had called for a compromise on the slavery issue and who supported the Fugitive Slave Law, by which escaped slaves were to be returned to their masters. Surprised and infuriated, Whittier wrote about Webster as “Ichabod,” a forlorn, fallen creature who was spiritually dead because his faith and honor were gone. The poem is among his best, effectively fusing the reformer’s fervid abolitionist ideals with the poet’s restrained, allusive control of his material.

Another poem to catch the popular imagination was “The Barefoot Boy,” which appeared in 1856. Often quoted in its day, the poem was an idyll of youth, a celebration of the country boy whose simple innocence was a source of joy to the poet, himself once a country boy. Though it echoed in sentiment some of the Romantic theories of childhood immortalized by the poet William Wordsworth, Whittier’s poem was unashamedly sentimental, positive, and sunny. Its clarity and charm made it an instant success.

The founding of The Atlantic Monthly in 1857 opened a wider opportunity for Whittier as a poet. His reputation had already become secure with the publication of several volumes, including the so-called Blue and Gold edition of his work in the same year. Now, at age fifty, Whittier felt the financial security and creative freedom that his work as an editor and journalist had never afforded him. The years immediately before and after the Civil War saw the culmination of his achievement as a poet. In “Skipper Ireson’s Ride” (1857), Whittier produced a classic American ballad about the disgrace of Captain Floyd Ireson, who abandoned his sinking vessel and was tarred and feathered by the women of Marblehead. It was a poem of wit, irony, and narrative verve. In 1860, Whittier produced Home Ballads and Other Poems. “Telling the Bees,” one of the thirty-six poems in the collection, was a notable example of the poet’s mature work. Written to commemorate the death of his sister, Mary, this quiet elegy recorded the poet’s feelings through the symbol of the beehives draped in black. It was controlled, concise, and moving.

Whittier’s finest work was published in 1866. Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl was a long reminiscence of the poet’s boyhood. In sharply pictorial details, the poem recorded the Whittier family’s physical and emotional security within the house while a snow storm raged. In a series of vignettes, the poet presented the half-dozen or so members of the household, including the visiting schoolmaster, who passed the time before the fire with stories and incidents of character. The poem was notable as well for its structure. Physical details of the approaching storm and its aftermath were contrasted with the warm, peaceful life inside. The poet skillfully expressed the theme of familial love, not through bald statement, but through contrasting and precise imagery. With Snow-Bound, Whittier achieved national recognition. His seventieth birthday in 1877 was celebrated in New England with a festive dinner in his honor. When he died in 1892, he was one of America’s most beloved poets.


John Greenleaf Whittier is an interesting poet for several reasons. He can be seen as an example of the kind of poet nineteenth century America considered important. His work was often dogmatic, trite, moralistic, even excessive; but in his use of native material such as New England history, legend, and landscape, Whittier made poetry accessible to the general reading public. Never obscure, he thus served as the poetic spokesman of his age. His work was a kind of cultural mirror that reflected the conventional middle-class attitudes of the period.

Whittier can also be appreciated on his own terms as a genuine poet. Over a span of sixty years, he evolved from a political versifier to a disciplined, learned artist who produced a handful of American ballads, moving elegies, and sensitive, nature poems. His best work was honest and distinctively American.


Kribbs, Jayne K. Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston, Mass: G. K. Hall, 1980. This is a collection of book reviews and critical assessments from Whittier’s contemporaries, especially James Russell Lowell. It also includes articles by twentieth century critics and biographers.

Leary, Lewis. John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Twayne, 1961. This is a good, short introduction to the poet’s life and work that offers a brief review of Whittier’s significant poetry in light of the poet’s Quaker heritage.

Pickard, John. John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation. American Authors and Critics Series. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961. Pickard provides a largely sympathetic treatment of Whittier, whose best work is examined in light of the poet’s religious humanism. The book emphasizes the evolution of the poet’s work from the political and mundane to the sensitive and personal.

Pickard, Samuel T. Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1894. This standard biography of the poet was written by his nephew. It is valuable for the contemporary accounts of the poet’s life and work and presents Whittier as an honest reformer with genuine poetic gifts.

Wagenknecht, Edward. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Wagenknecht concentrates on the conflicts in Whittier’s life, particularly the paradox between his celibate lifestyle and his attraction to women, between his moral conscience and his quest for fame.

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