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...
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