John Greenleaf Whittier Analysis

Discussion Topics (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

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?

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 (Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111206128-Whittier.jpg John Greenleaf Whittier. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 (Poets and Poetry in America)

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...

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Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 445 words.)