John Greenleaf Whittier Whittier, John Greenleaf - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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" [1850], 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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

"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) 1856

The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. 2 vols. (poetry) 1857

Home Ballads and Poems (ballads and poetry) 1860

In War-Time, and Other Poems (poetry) 1863

Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl (poetry) 1866

The Tent on the Beach, and Other Poems (poetry) 1867

Among the Hills, and Other Poems (poetry) 1868

Ballads of New-England (ballads) 1870

Child-Life: A Collection of Poems [editor; with Lucy Larcom] (poetry) 1872

The Pennsylvania Pilgrim, and Other Poems (poetry) 1872

Child Life in Prose [editor; with Lucy Larcom] (short stories) 1874

The Complete Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. 1 vols. (poetry, legends, essays, tales, biographical sketches, and historical sketches) 1876

The Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier. 5 vols. (poems, ballads, legends, essays, tales, biographical sketches, historical sketches, and criticism) 1888-9

At Sundown (poetry) 1890

The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier (poetry) 1894

Whittier on Writers and Writing: The Uncollected Critical Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier (criticism) 1950

The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier (letters) 1975

*This work includes the poem "Ichabod."

**This work includes the poem "Maud Muller" and "Barbara Frietchie."

†This work includes the poem "Skipper Ireson's Ride."

‡This work also includes poetry written by Elizabeth H. Whittier.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (essay date 1902)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lewis E. Weeks, Jr. (essay date 1964)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harry Hayden Clark (essay date 1968)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Penn Warren (review date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donald A. Ringe (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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James E. Rocks (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 564 words.)