John Greenleaf Whittier

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

How did John Greenleaf Whittier’s early life shape his later poetry?

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Which writers and books had an early influence on Whittier’s poetry?

In what ways did the fact that Whittier was a Quaker influence his political views and career as a newspaperman? How did it affect his poetry?

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How did Whittier use his poetry to help affect political events from 1840 to 1860?

Why were Americans in the post-Civil War era so accepting of Whittier’s nostalgic poetry?

Though Whittier is considered a regional (New England) poet, why do his works have an appeal for Americans from many regions?

Other literary forms

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Besides his extensive poetry, John Greenleaf Whittier (WIH-tee-uhr) wrote numerous antislavery tracts, compiled editions of New England legends, edited various newspapers, and was active in abolitionist politics. Whittier’s Legends of New-England, his earliest collection, was followed by the antislavery arguments in Justice and Expediency: Or, Slavery Considered with a View to Its Rightful and Effectual Remedy, Abolition (1833), and The Supernaturalism of New England (1847). Whittier’s finest prose work is perhaps Leaves from Margaret Smith’s Journal (1849), a Quaker novel in journal form. Old Portraits and Modern Sketches (1850) and Literary Recreations and Miscellanies (1854) followed, and the Prose Works of John Greenleaf Whittier were collected in two volumes in 1866.

Whittier also edited Child Life (1872) and Child Life in Prose (1874), as well as Songs of Three Centuries (1876). He wrote a masterful introduction to his edition of The Journal of John Woolman (1871), another notable American Quaker writer. A full collection of Whittier’s prose can be found in The Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier (1888-1889).

Achievements

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John Greenleaf Whittier was a remarkably prolific writer and reformer. As poet, editor, abolitionist, and religious humanist, Whittier managed to produce more than forty volumes of poetry and prose during his lifetime, not counting his uncollected journalistic work. Through his antislavery poems, he spoke for the conscience of New England, and he later celebrated the virtues of village life for an age that looked back on them with nostalgia. Although honored and venerated as a poet during his later years, he was curiously guarded about his literary reputation, remarking to his first biographer, “I am a man, not a mere verse-maker.” His belief that morality was the basis of all literature may have made him finally more of a moralist than a poet; his Quaker conscience would not permit him to produce art for art’s sake.

Early in life, he patterned his verse after Robert Burns, writing dialect imitations of the Scottish poet to the extent of being called the American Burns. He further corrupted his muse by imitating the worst of the popular, sentimental, and genteel verse of his age and did not achieve a distinctive poetic voice until midcareer. Like many a self-educated poet, Whittier lacked a clear sense of critical taste and judgment, especially in regard to his own work. He wrote too much too quickly and could not distinguish between his best poems and his inferior work. Even his later work is often tainted by melodrama, moralizing, and sentimentality; yet when the worst has been said, the abiding strength of his work transcends its weaknesses.

His most obvious poetic strength is accessibility. Whittier wrote popular poetry that did not make great intellectual demands on his readers. Unlike the modernists, who wrote for a select, highly educated audience, Whittier tried to reach the ordinary reader. Instead of composing dense, ironic, highly allusive verse requiring careful explication, Whittier’s narratives and ballads were written in a common idiom that could be readily understood. His poetical materials were regional legend and folklore, topical events, and the personal resources of his Quaker faith. Their moral perspective is clear and forthright, at times didactic or moralistic, and it lacks the ambiguity or tentativeness favored by the New Critics. George Arms argues persuasively that Whittier and the other schoolroom poets (also known as the Fireside poets) simply cannot be appreciated according to current standards of taste and, therefore, have been too often simply dismissed instead of being understood. Their strengths are seen as liabilities and they are faulted for lacking qualities foreign to their age.

The purview of Whittier’s work was “common, natural things”—the realm of ordinary life. He rarely dealt with the extremes of human experience, except in some of his abolitionist poems. He shared the optimism and piety of his age and held to a romantic view of nature and a belief in the moral progress of humanity. His sense of moral order and probity may seem merely quaint or old-fashioned to the modern reader, but his poems reflect moral convictions sincerely held. He devoted thirty years to the struggle against slavery and committed the better part of his talents and energy to that issue. If he lost his sense of social justice later in life and failed to comprehend the problems of an industrial society, that might well be excused by his age. Few people are capable of devoting themselves to more than one cause in a lifetime.

The alleged deficiencies in Whittier’s poetics should also be judged in terms of his commitment to a popular rather than an academic style. Whittier favored a light, relaxed approach to his verse. Perhaps he overused mechanical rhymes, ballad meter, apostrophe, and hyperbole, but in his “Proem,” he is frank to confess his limitations. His muse was not given to exalted flights but spoke plainly for freedom and democracy. Whittier’s readership steadily grew during his later years so that his reputation once seemed secure, but like those of the other Fireside poets, it has suffered a sharp decline since his death. He is now read, if at all, as the author of “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl” and other nostalgic portraits of New England village life rather than as one of the leading poets of his age. Though his reputation may now be eclipsed by those of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville, no American poet of the nineteenth century better deserves the title of “poet of the common man” than Whittier.

Bibliography

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Grant, David. “‘The Unequal Sovereigns of a Slaveholding Land’: The North as Subject in Whittier’s ‘The Panorama.’” Criticism 38, no. 4 (Fall, 1996): 521-549. Whittier’s “The Panorama” discusses the interdependence of the two ideals exploited by the Republicans and Democrats: sovereignty and Union. The poem places the slave system at the root of the threats to the North.

Hollander, John, ed. American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century. New York: Library of America, 1993. Contains a biographical sketch of Whittier and a year-by-year chronology of poets and poetry.

Kribbs, Jayne K., comp. Critical Essays on John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Kribbs’s extended introduction locates four periods of the poet’s writing career and suggests in conclusion that the central question about Whittier is not how great, but how minor a figure he is in American literature. All the essays are written by respected scholars. Contains a bibliography and an index.

Leary, Lewis Gaston. John Greenleaf Whittier. New York: Twayne, 1961. Although this introductory study looks at Whittier’s life and art, the poetry discussion is more useful than the biographical section, which contains some errors and no new information. Leary discusses the poet’s limitations, especially as a critic. Includes bibliography.

Miller, Lewis H. “The Supernaturalism of Snow Bound.” New England Quarterly 53 (1980): 291-307. A good reading of how Whittier broke through his usually plain style to create an impressive rhythm, tone, and syntax in his striking creation of a bleak landscape and snow-bound universe.

Pickard, John B. John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1961. The book begins with a biographical summary; the last seven chapters are a critical guide to Whittier’s work.

Wagenknecht, Edward. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Wagenknecht arranges his facts and anecdotes topically rather than chronologically. The result is a vibrant and energetic portrait of Whittier that displays the richness of his inner and outer life. The thesis of this book is that many facets of Whittier’s life seem paradoxical to one another. Includes bibliography.

Warren, Robert Penn. John Greenleaf Whittier’s Poetry: An Appraisal and a Selection. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. Warren discusses “Snow-Bound,” “Telling the Bees,” “Ichabod,” “To My Old Schoolmaster,” and other poems addressing themes of childhood and nostalgia, as well as a controversial Freudian view of the poet’s development. Includes thirty-six poems by Whittier.

Woodwell, R. H. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Biography. Haverhill, Mass.: Trustees of the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead, 1985. This biography, based on years of research, is encyclopedic but has a very good index. Woodwell’s 636 pages are not highly readable, but he includes a useful review of Whittier’s criticism.

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Critical Essays