John Greenleaf Whittier Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
ph_0111206128-Whittier.jpg John Greenleaf Whittier. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1992 words.)

John Greenleaf Whittier Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

John Greenleaf Whittier’s family was of true old New England stock. His ancestors settled in the locality of his birth in 1638, and the house in which he was born was more than a century old in 1807. His parents, John and Abigail (Hussey), worked the rough New England soil, often suffering from indebtedness but never impoverished. Both were devout Quakers who raised their four children to seek the Inner Light and beware of dogmatic religious authorities. Though their nearest neighbors lived half a mile away, the Whittiers were very sociable and staunch believers in the connectedness of all people. Young John absorbed the values of Yankee independence and Quaker social justice, as well as an affection and healthy respect for the region’s countryside and history. All of these influences—familial, religious, and geographic—would find their way into Whittier’s poetry.

Labor on the farm was harsh, and John’s body found it difficult to endure. He worked hard but was often sick from exhaustion. During the winter of 1814-1815, the Whittiers sent John to the district school, his only formal education until young adulthood. Nonetheless, he learned to read and consumed his family’s small library, which centered on the Bible and Quaker religious works. In 1821, a traveling Scotsman stopped by the farmstead and sang a number of poet Robert Burns’s songs in return for sustenance. Later the same year, the local schoolmaster Joshua Coffin read a number of other poems to the family, and the taste for poetry was awakened in fourteen-year-old John. The simplicity of Burns’s lyrics and their rural flavor spoke to John with immediacy. Whittier’s earliest poems were largely derivative and sometimes even in Burns’s own Scots dialect. By the time he was nineteen, Whittier recorded some thirty poems that reflected his rural environment, his religiosity, and the Romantic sensitivity to nature that was in full bloom. His older sister Mary encouraged his writing and, in 1826, sent “The Exile’s Departure” to the Newburyport Free Press for publication. The paper’s editor, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, was so impressed that he visited the young poet, beginning a long and complex relationship. Within a year or so, Whittier had published seventy-six poems in local papers, including the Haverhill Gazette, whose editor echoed Garrison’s call for more. In 1827, Whittier enrolled for the first of two terms at the Haverhill Academy, where he earned tuition by teaching and shoemaking. He learned an enormous amount, including...

(The entire section is 1046 words.)

John Greenleaf Whittier Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

As a representative of the New England Renaissance, John Greenleaf Whittier gathered material from the region’s history, folklore, landscape, piety, and politics in creating a collection of poems that marked him in his day as one of the era’s most characteristically American poets. While early on deriving much from Burns and the English Romantics, he developed his own voice that bespoke his fine abilities of observation and description. While never abandoning the rural and historical trends of his youth, from his mid-twenties through his early fifties, Whittier used his pen as a weapon against the evils of slavery and related social ills, while editing and writing for numerous Yankee newspapers. Buoyed by his Quaker faith in...

(The entire section is 184 words.)

John Greenleaf Whittier Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

John Greenleaf Whittier was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1807, in an old family homestead built by a Quaker ancestor. He was the second of four children in the family of John Whittier and Abigail Whittier, of old Quaker stock. Besides John Greenleaf, the Whittier children included an older sister Mary, a younger brother Matthew Franklin, and a younger sister Elizabeth Hussey. Several other relatives lived with the family, including a paternal grandmother, a bachelor uncle, and a maiden aunt. The poet’s father was an honest, industrious farmer who tilled his hard, rocky land in the Merrimack Valley with only marginal success. Whittier’s mother was a model of quiet strength and deep refinement. She was noted...

(The entire section is 1340 words.)

John Greenleaf Whittier Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Time and geography link John Greenleaf Whittier (HWIHT-ee-ur) with such American literary figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—the so-called New England Group. Whittier’s New England, however, was never the same as theirs; he stands apart from them in background, schooling, and the general direction of his writing talents. To begin with, he did not share their Puritan heritage—Whittier was a Quaker, derived from Quaker stock. Nor did he inherit a ticket of admission to the cultural benefits that nineteenth century Cambridge, Concord, and Boston were able to provide. Instead, “the American Burns” was born to the rugged labors and simple pleasures of...

(The entire section is 525 words.)