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."